PARKER v. JACKSON County Comm'n

Decision Date31 March 2011
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 2:10-cv-00058
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of West Virginia



Pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Declaratory Judgment [Docket 12]. For the reasons outlined below, the Court has determined that exercising jurisdiction in this case would be inappropriate pursuant to the doctrine of Burford abstention. Accordingly, the Court REMANDS this action to the Circuit Court of Jackson County.


This action arises out of the Jackson County Commission's ("Defendant") application of its Revised Floodplain Ordinance ("Floodplain Ordinance") to a mobile home park owned by James and Cindi Parker (collectively "Plaintiffs"). In May of 2006, Plaintiffs purchased the Wilding Mobile Home Park ("Park") in Jackson County, West Virginia, wherein "all the mobile home lots . . . were already constructed and developed for the purpose of mobile homes." (Docket 13 at 4.) The Park is located in a part of Jackson County that has been a designated floodplain for over twenty-five years. On March 15, 2007, Defendant revised its existing Floodplain Ordinance to include permitting, construction, elevation, and anchoring requirements applicable to "[a]llmanufactured homes to be installed or substantially improved within the identified flood hazard areas of Jackson County, West Virginia." (Docket 1-2 at 16 (emphasis added)). On September 15, 2008, County Floodplain Coordinator Robert Strobbe advised Plaintiffs by letter that the Floodplain Ordinance's revised requirements applied to "any new mobile homes moved into [their] park," although any pre-existing mobile homes in the Park were exempted from compliance. (Id. at 38.) Plaintiffs argue that Defendant's application of the new Floodplain Ordinance to the Park's previously developed mobile home lots (as distinguished from any existing mobile homes) is "contrary to law" and "destroy[s] any economically viable use of the property." (Id. at 2, 3.) In essence, Plaintiffs wish to continue to utilize their Park as though the Floodplain Ordinance had never been enacted, i.e., if any of their existing mobile homes need replacing, they want the replacement homes to be exempt from the ordinance's requirements. In the alternative, Plaintiffs want to be compensated by the state.

On June 1, 2009, Plaintiffs filed their first complaint in this matter, alleging general constitutional violations stemming from Defendant's application of the Floodplain Ordinance to the Park's developed lots. On January 11, 2010, upon agreed order of the parties, Plaintiffs served an amended complaint with a single count of "Condemnation and Violation of Constitution," containing more specific allegations. This count asserts that Defendant's application of the Floodplain Ordinance constitutes both (1) "inverse condemnation and taking of the Plaintiffs' property by a governmental action without due process of law. . . . [in violation of] the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Section 9 of Article III of the West Virginia Constitution" and (2) "an unconstitutional taking of property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 9 of Article III of the WestVirginia Constitution." (Docket 1-2 at 4.) Plaintiffs requested three alternative forms of relief: (1) a writ of mandamus requiring Defendants to invoke condemnation proceedings against the Park;1(2) a declaratory judgment holding the Floodplain Ordinance "illegal and unenforceable as to Plaintiffs," because the Park's mobile home lots were developed pre-ordinance; or (3) an order limiting the permissible interpretation of the Floodplain Ordinance "to allow for continued use of the Plaintiffs['] property" for all developed lots "in the manner they were used prior to the adoption of the ordinance." (Id. at 6.) Defendants timely removed on January 21, 2010, asserting the Court's original jurisdiction over all claims "arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1441. On March 8, 2010, the parties jointly moved the court to bifurcate the issue of declaratory relief, noting that discovery in this case would be necessary only if declaratory relief were granted. The Court granted the joint motion on March 16, 2010, and stayed the remainder of the case. (Docket 7.)

Plaintiffs filed their Motion for Declaratory Judgment on June 16, 2010, urging the Court "to declare that the Flood Plain Ordinance as adopted by the Jackson County Commission does not negate Plaintiffs' ability to use previously developed mobile home lots in its mobile home park thatwere in existence and used prior to the adoption of said Flood Plain Ordinance." (Docket 12 at 1-2.) In the briefing on this motion, the parties have focused almost exclusively on the Floodplain Ordinance's validity under state land use and zoning laws. In particular, the parties debate the applicability of various West Virginia zoning statutes, statewide building codes, and common law land use doctrines.


As noted above, Plaintiffs' complaint asserts a single count of " 'Condemnation [and] Violation of Constitution," specifically alleging that Defendant's application of the Floodplain Ordinance to their property warrants a state law claim for inverse condemnation and constitutes the taking of their property without just compensation or due process of law in violation of "the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Section 9 of Article III of the West Virginia Constitution." (Docket 1-2 at 3-4.)

A. Abstention

"Abstention doctrines constitute 'extraordinary and narrow exception[s]' to a federal court's duty to exercise the jurisdiction conferred on it." Martin v. Stewart, 499 F.3d 360, 363 (4th Cir. 2007) (quoting Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 716, 728 (1996)). The Supreme Court has identified several carefully delineated categories of cases where a federal court has discretion to abstain from exercising its jurisdiction. New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 359 (1989) (NOPSI ). The doctrines of abstention "may and should be raised by the Court sua sponte." Prentiss v. Allstate Ins. Co., 87 F. Supp. 2d 514, 517 (W.D.N.C.1999); see also Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 143 n.10 (1976) (noting that "abstention may be raised by the court [s]ua sponte"). For the purposes of the case sub judice, the doctrine of Burford abstention,Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943), renders inappropriate any exercise of the Court's jurisdiction in this matter.

A federal court has discretion to abstain from exercising its jurisdiction in order to show deference to important state interests. Burford, 319 U.S. at 317-18. Specifically, the doctrine of Burford abstention allows a federal court to refrain from interfering with complex state regulatory schemes where state-court review is available if a case "[1] presents difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result then at bar, or [2] if its adjudication in a federal forum would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern." Quackenbush, 517 U.S. at 726-27 (quoting NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 361). Cases involving questions of state land use and zoning law are "classic example[s] of situations where Burford should apply," and "federal courts should not leave their indelible print on local and state land use and zoning laws by entertaining these cases and . . . sitting as a zoning board of appeals." MLC Automotive, LLC v. Town of S. Pines, 532 F.3d 269, 282-83 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Pomponio v. Fauquier Cty. Bd of Supervisors, 21 F.3d 1319, 1324 (4th Cir. 1994) (internal quotations omitted)). The Fourth Circuit has held that:

[I]n cases in which plaintiffs' federal claims stem solely from construction of state and local land use or zoning law, not involving constitutional validity of the same and absent exceptional circumstances . . . the district courts should abstain under the Burford doctrine to avoid interference with a State's or locality's land use policy.

Id. (quoting Pomponio, 21 F.3d at 1328). There is no specific formula for applying Burford abstention; despite the doctrine's "many different forks and prongs, [its] central idea has always been one of simple comity." MLC Automotive, 532 F.3d at 280 (quoting Johnson v. Collins Entm't Co., 199 F.3d 710, 710 (4th Cir.1999)).

Although abstention under Burford is "almost never appropriate when a case involves the presence of a genuine and independent federal claim," Fourth Quarter Props. IV, Inc. v. City of Concord, 127 F. App'x 648, 654 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Pomponio, 21 F.3d at 1324), Burford abstention is appropriate when a Plaintiffs' constitutional claims are, at their core, issues of "state law in federal law clothing." MLC Automotive, 532 F.3d at 282 (quoting Johnson, 199 F.3d at 721 (4th Cir.1999) (cataloging cases)). Indeed,

[v]irtually all [cases involving state or local zoning or land use laws], when stripped of the cloak of their federal constitutional claims, are state law cases. The federal claims are really state law claims because it is either the zoning or land use decisions, decisional processes or laws that are the bases for the plaintiffs' federal claims.

Pomponio, 21 F.2d at 1326; see also MLC Automotive, 532 F.3d at 276 (Burford abstention appropriate where complaint alleged violations of "federal and state substantive due process rights" dependent on a finding that Plaintiff had a vested right in the property as previously zoned). Accordingly, Burford abstention is appropriate when "federal claims are entangled in a skien of state-law that must be...

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