Vilas Cnty.v. Accola

Decision Date12 May 2015
Docket NumberNo. 2014AP2688.,2014AP2688.
Citation866 N.W.2d 406 (Table),364 Wis.2d 409
PartiesVILAS COUNTY, a Wisconsin Municipal Corporation, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. Harlan J. ACCOLA and Brenda L. Accola, Defendants–Appellants.
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals
Opinion

¶ 1 STARK, J.

Harlan and Brenda Accola appeal an order granting summary judgment to Vilas County in the County's action to enforce a zoning ordinance. The issue on appeal is whether the ordinance permits short-term rentals of single-family detached dwelling units located in the single-family residential district. We agree with the County and the circuit court that, under the facts of this case, the ordinance unambiguously prohibits short-term rentals of single-family detached dwelling units in the R–1 district. Accordingly, we affirm the order granting summary judgment to the County.

BACKGROUND1

¶ 2 In June 2012, the Accolas purchased a home on Rosalind Lake in the Town of Presque Isle. The property is subject to the County's general zoning ordinance and is located in the R–1 zoning district. Section 4.1 of the ordinance, which governs the R–1 district, begins with a statement explaining that the purpose of the R–1 district is to “create areas for exclusive low density residential use and prohibit the intrusion of uses incompatible with the quiet and comfort of such areas.” Vilas Cnty., Wis., General Zoning Ordinance § 4.1(A) (Nov. 24, 2010). Immediately following this purpose statement, the ordinance lists the following as permitted uses in the R–1 district:

(1) Single-family detached dwelling units, including individual mobile homes, which meet the yard requirements of the district.
(2) One non-rental guesthouse, which may be occupied on a temporary basis.
(3) Parks, playgrounds, golf courses and other recreation facilities....
(4) Home occupations as defined in Article XI of this Ordinance.[ 2 ]
(5) Essential services.
(6) Hobby farms.

Id., § 4.1(B).

¶ 3 In addition to the R–1 district, the general zoning ordinance also creates a Residential/Lodging (RL) district. Section 4.2 of the ordinance, which governs the RL district, contains the following purpose statement:

Purpose: The Residential/Lodging District is to provide for areas with primarily low-density residential use, but with some mixing of low-density Transient Lodging. (Transient Lodging is defined as: A commercial lodging establishment, which allows rental of sleeping quarters or dwelling units for periods of less than one month.) Transient Lodging uses are a permitted use. Examples of these uses include residential dwellings, bed & breakfasts and resort establishments with no contiguous multiple-family dwelling units....

Id., § 4.2(A). The ordinance then lists the following permitted uses for the RL district:

(1) All uses permitted in the R–1 District.
(2) Bed and breakfast establishments.
(3) Resort establishments with no contiguous multiple-family dwelling units.
(4) Rental of residential dwelling unit.

Id., § 4.2(B).

¶ 4 The Rosalind Lake property is not the Accolas' primary residence. Shortly after they purchased the property, the Accolas began advertising it for rent on the internet, for stays as short as two nights. On July 18, 2012, the County notified the Accolas that single-family residences in the R–1 district could not be rented for periods of less than one month. The County asserted rentals of less than one month constituted “transient lodging,” as that term is used in the section of the ordinance governing the RL district.

¶ 5 The Accolas subsequently created a corporation called A Better Way to Live. They began allowing people to stay at the Rosalind Lake property for periods of less than one month in exchange for “donations” to the corporation. The Accolas represented to individuals interested in staying at the property that the corporation would use a portion of each donation to pay “expenses, utilities[,] cleaning fees, etc[.],” and the remainder would be donated to charity.3 The County again informed the Accolas that renting their property for periods of less than one month violated the general zoning ordinance. The County asserted, “Soliciting donations on a weekly basis in exchange for housing is the functional equivalent of renting the property[.]

¶ 6 The County initiated the instant enforcement action in August 2013, seeking forfeitures and an injunction prohibiting the Accolas from renting the Rosalind Lake property for periods of less than thirty days. The parties ultimately filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The Accolas argued the short-term rental of their property was permitted because the general zoning ordinance allows [s]ingle-family detached dwelling units” in the R–1 district. See id., § 4.1(B)(1). They asserted their property indisputably qualified as a single-family detached dwelling unit, and the general zoning ordinance did not explicitly prohibit short-term rentals of single-family detached dwelling units in the R–1 district.4

¶ 7 The County, in turn, argued the Accolas' short-term rental of the Rosalind Lake property constituted “transient lodging.” As noted above, the general zoning ordinance expressly permits transient lodging in the RL district. Id., § 4.2(A). By definition, the term “transient lodging” applies only to rental of sleeping quarters or dwelling units “for periods of less than one month.” Id. The ordinance for the RL district lists “residential dwellings” as an example of transient lodging, and it then lists “rental of residential dwelling unit” as a permitted use in the RL district. Id., § 4.2(A), (B)(4).

¶ 8 Reading these provisions together, the County argued the ordinance permits rental of residential dwelling units for periods of less than one month in the RL district. The County then noted the ordinance also permits in the RL district [a]ll uses permitted in the R–1 district.” Id., § 4.2(B)(1). Given that all uses permitted in the R–1 district are also permitted in the RL district, the County argued the Accolas' interpretation of the ordinance would render § 4.2(B)(4) superfluous because, if rentals of residential dwelling units for periods of less than one month were permitted in the R–1 district, there would be no need to separately list “rental of residential dwelling unit” as a permitted use in the RL district. Accordingly, the County argued the only reasonable reading of the ordinance was that short-term rentals of residential dwelling units were not permitted in the R–1 district.

¶ 9 The circuit court agreed with the County, concluding short-term rentals of the Accolas' property for periods of less than one month, whether compensated by direct payment of rent or by donations to the Accolas' corporation, were not permitted in the R–1 district. The court reasoned it was not dispositive that the zoning ordinance failed to expressly prohibit short-term rentals of single-family detached dwelling units in the section governing the R–1 district because “the concept of zoning is to list what you can do. And if it's not there[,] the presumption is that you [cannot].” The court then explained that the “specific permission to rent a residential dwelling unit in [the] RL District provides the necessary synthesis to say that it's permitted somewhere, that implies that it's prohibited in R–1.” The court concluded the ordinance, “although not perfect, is sufficiently clear that it's not ambiguous as to whether or not you're allowed to rent property on a short term basis” in the R–1 district. As a result, the court imposed a $35,000 forfeiture and permanently enjoined the Accolas from renting the Rosalind Lake property for periods of less than thirty days. The Accolas now appeal.

STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶ 10 We independently review a grant of summary judgment, applying the same standards as the circuit court. Smith v. Dodgeville Mut. Ins. Co., 212 Wis.2d 226, 232, 568 N.W.2d 31 (Ct.App.1997). Summary judgment is appropriate where “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Wis. Stat. § 802 .08(2).

¶ 11 Here, the material facts are undisputed, leaving only an issue of law for our review. Specifically, we must determine whether the County's general zoning ordinance permits single-family detached dwelling units in the R–1 district to be rented for periods of less than one month. [C]onstruction of an ordinance under undisputed facts is a question of law for our independent review.” Schwegel v. Milwaukee Cnty., 2015 WI 12, ¶ 18, ––– Wis.2d ––––, 859 N.W.2d 78 ; see also FAS, LLC v. Town of Bass Lake, 2007 WI 73, ¶ 9, 301 Wis.2d 321, 733 N.W.2d 287 (interpretation of a zoning ordinance presents a question of law that we review independently).

¶ 12 When interpreting a zoning ordinance, we apply the rules of statutory interpretation. FAS, LLC, 301 Wis.2d 321, ¶ 21, 733 N.W.2d 287. [T]he purpose of statutory interpretation is to determine what the statute means so that it may be given its full, proper, and intended effect.” State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane Cnty., 2004 WI 58, ¶ 44, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. Statutory interpretation begins with the language of the statute. Id., ¶ 45. Statutory language is given its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning, except that technical or specially-defined words or phrases are given their technical or special definitional meanings. Id.

Context is important to meaning. So, too, is the structure of the statute in which the operative language appears. Therefore, statutory language is interpreted in the context in which it is used; not in isolation but as part of a whole; in relation to the language of surrounding or closely-related statutes; and reasonably, to avoid absurd or unreasonable results.

Id., ¶ 46. Where possible, statutory language must be read “to give reasonable effect to every word, in order to avoid surplusage.” Id.

¶ 13 When conducting a plain-meaning analysis of statutory language, we may consider an explicit statement of legislative purpose...

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