Wheelan v. City of Gautier

Decision Date03 February 2022
Docket Number2019-CT-01062-SCT
Citation332 So.3d 851
Parties Martin WHEELAN v. CITY OF GAUTIER and David A. Vindich
CourtMississippi Supreme Court






¶1. The City of Gautier granted David Vindich a permit to build a 1,410 square foot garage/workshop on his .76 acre lot. When the building was almost completed, Vindich's neighbor, Martin Wheelan, filed a lawsuit in the Jackson County Chancery Court. He argued the City's decision was unlawful because Vindich actually sought a variance, which requires a public hearing rather than a building permit. Thus, Wheelan said he was denied due process. Wheelan also claimed the City's decision was arbitrary and capricious and that the workshop "completely overwhelm[ed]" the neighborhood and created a nuisance.

¶2. After a trial, the chancellor dismissed Wheelan's claims, finding that the City's interpretation of the applicable ordinance was not manifestly unreasonable. The chancellor also found that the building was not a nuisance. Wheelan appealed, alleging that the City's decision violated Gautier's ordinance and that he and the other neighbors were deprived of due process because they did not receive notice of the City's proceedings on Vindich's application. The Court of Appeals affirmed in Wheelan v. City of Gautier , No. 2019-CA-01062 COA, 332 So.3d 863 (Miss. Ct. App. Feb. 23, 2021). The majority held that the City's building permit was not arbitrary, capricious, or without substantial basis and that Wheelan was not deprived of any due process rights. Id . (¶ 53). The separate opinion said that the City's interpretation of its ordinance cannot be upheld because it is manifestly unreasonable. Id. (¶ 69) (Wilson, P.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

¶3. Because the City's interpretation and application of the ordinance in the instant case renders other portions of the ordinance unworkable, we reverse the decisions of the Court of Appeals and the trial court.


¶4. Land development in the City of Gautier is governed by a comprehensive land use/development plan referred to as the Unified Development Ordinance. The relevant portion of the ordinance provides:

§ 5.4.4(F) - Maximum Lot Coverage - Twenty-Five (25) percent for the principal structure and accessory structures. Accessory structures shall not exceed twenty (20) percent of the rear area or fifty (50) percent of the main building area, whichever is less.

¶5. Vindich's .76 acre lot is 33,105.6 square feet. Under the first sentence, the total of all structures on Vindich's property cannot exceed 8,276.4 square feet (25 percent of 33,105.6 square feet). Vindich's home, or "principal structure" is 2,843.74 square feet.

¶6. The parties dispute how the second sentence should be applied. The Unified Development Ordinance does not define "rear lot area" or "main building area." Initially, the City denied Vindich's application, saying that the "main building area" meant the size of Vindich's house and that Vindich was limited to approximately 1,420 square feet of accessory structures (half of his 2,843.75 square foot home). Vindich's property already contained a 140 square foot pool house, a 375 square foot gazebo, and a 614 square foot boat house, totaling 1,129 square feet. Accordingly, Vindich could only build an additional 293 square feet in accessory buildings. The Building Department did not address the portion of the Unified Development Ordinance that refers to "rear area."

¶7. Vindich disagreed with the Building Department's interpretation and appealed the decision to Gautier's Planning Commission. With his appeal, Vindich submitted his own interpretations of the Unified Development Ordinance and an official survey of his property and existing buildings. The survey confirmed that Vindich's home was 2,843.74 square feet but showed that his three existing accessory buildings totaled 1.043.6 square feet. Noting the Unified Development Ordinance's ambiguity, Vindich applied two calculations/interpretations:

If "main building area" means the entire lot, then accessory structures on Vindich's lot would be limited to 16,552.8 square feet (half of the total lot), so long as this area is less than twenty percent of the "rear area lot." Vindich calculated his "rear area lot" by subtracting both the area of his front yard (3,068.1 square feet) and his home's square footage (2,843.74) from the total square footage of his lot (33,105.6). According to Vindich, his "rear area lot" totaled 27,193.76. 20% of the "rear area lot" is 5,438.75 square feet, which is less than half the total lot. Vindich subtracted the total square footage of all the existing structures on his property (his home plus the three accessory buildings, for a total of 3,878.34 square feet) from the 20% to determine that he had about 1,600 square feet remaining to build another accessory structure.
If "main building area" means the size of the home (2,943.74 square feet), then accessory structures would be limited to half the size of the home (1,421.98 square feet). Half the size of the home is less than 20% of the rear area lot (5,438.75 square feet). Vindich said his 1,400 square foot workshop met the UDO area criteria so long as the UDO limitations referred to each accessory building and not the total square footage of all accessory buildings.

¶8. Prior to the Planning Commission's consideration of Vindich's appeal, Gautier's Planning and Economic Director, Chandra Nicholson, submitted an explanation for the Building Department's denial. According to Nicholson, the Building Department interpreted the Unified Development Ordinance as limiting total accessory building square footage to less than 50 percent of the square footage of the house. Nicholson noted that the Unified Development Ordinance refers to "accessory structures" in plural form, indicating that the square footage of all accessory buildings should be considered together. Nicholson did not address the portion of the Unified Development Ordinance that refers to the "rear area lot."

¶9. The Planning Commission agreed that the Unified Development Ordinance was not clear but ultimately voted four to three to reverse the Building Department's decision and allow Vindich to build the workshop. Still, the City Council had to approve the Planning Commission's decision. The Building Department advocated for its interpretation—that all accessory buildings combined together could not exceed 50 percent of the home's square footage. In another close, four-to-three vote, the City Council accepted the Planning Commission's decision to allow Vindich to build the 1,400 square foot workshop. The City's exact interpretation of the Unified Development Ordinance is absent from the record, but the City presents in its brief that it interpreted the phrase "main building area" to mean the "entire lot."

¶10. Vindich proceeded to build the workshop. Wheelan noticed the construction when he returned home from vacation and proceeded to measure the workshop's foundation. Wheelan then reviewed the Unified Development Ordinance and researched Vindich's appeal online. Believing the workshop violated the Unified Development Ordinance, prior to the workshop's completion, Wheelan filed a lawsuit in the Jackson County Chancery Court against Vindich, the City of Gautier, and the individual members of the City Council. Wheelan argued Vindich actually received a variance, which required a public hearing with notice. Wheelan also said the City Counsel's decision was "arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, beyond their legal authority, an abuse of power and unsupported by substantial evidence." Wheelan also raised a nuisance claim against Vindich. After a trial, the chancery court dismissed Wheelan's claims, finding that the City's interpretation of the ordinance was not manifestly unreasonable.

Court of Appeals Decision

¶11. On appeal, the Court of Appeals held

that because the authority to interpret the wording of an ordinance is vested in the City Council and because the interpretation of the Unified Development Ordinance was debatable, the City Council's actions were not arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly unreasonable, and the chancery court did not abuse its discretion, apply an erroneous legal standard, or make a manifestly wrong finding.

Wheelan, 332 So.3d at 878–79 (¶ 37).

¶12. The majority of the Court of Appeals relied on Hatfield v. Board of Supervisors of Madison County , 235 So. 3d 18 (Miss. 2017). Hatfield explained in great detail the Court's standard of involving local boards’ interpreting and applying local ordinances: "[I]n construing a zoning ordinance, unless manifestly unreasonable, great weight should be given to the construction placed upon the words by the local authorities." Id . at 19 (¶ 1) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Hall v. City of Ridgeland , 37 So. 3d 25, 36 (Miss. 2010) ). "And if the ordinance's application is ‘fairly debatable,’ the decision of the Board of Supervisors must be affirmed." Id. (quoting Saunders v. City of Jackson , 511 So. 2d 902, 905 (Miss. 1987) ). The Court further explained that:

"[z]oning ordinances should be given a fair and reasonable construction, in the light of their terminology, the objects sought to be obtained, the natural import of the words used in common and accepted usage, the setting in which they are employed, and the general structure of the zoning ordinance as a whole." A key function of a county board, city council, or board of alderman is to interpret its zoning ordinances. And [t]he cardinal rule in construction of zoning ordinances is to give effect to the intent of the lawmaking body." Local boards are in the most advantageous position to interpret and apply local ordinances. That is why "in

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