Holt v. Town of Stonington, 2014 WL 4251291 (2nd Cir.) involved the application of Defendant’s zoning requirements which allowed an exception to certain single-family minimum lot size requirements for undersized lots created before the adoption of the current zoning regime. Plaintiff purchased her lot in 2005 after receiving a letter from the town’s zoning enforcement officer stating that the lot qualified under this exception. On that basis, Plaintiff purchased the lot. However, the zoning enforcement office overlooked a 1981 land sale of a 10-foot strip to an adjacent property owner, which disqualified the remainder of the lot from the exception. The town’s zoning board of appeals overturned the enforcement officer’s letter interpretation and Plaintiff attempted to appeal the decision to state court. The state court found the letter was a “preliminary, advisory opinion and not a decision subject to appeal.” Plaintiff then filed suit in federal court inter alia to estop the Town from preventing construction of the single-family home on her property. The trial court entered an injunction estopping the Defendant Town from declaring that the subject site was “unbuildable under the Town’s zoning regulations.” The Town appealed from that decision.
The Second Circuit dismissed the case because Plaintiff failed to exhaust her remedies and stated that exhaustion was jurisdictional and therefore not waivable. The court added that the exhaustion requirement is grounded in a policy of fostering an orderly process of administrative adjudication and that the doctrine facilitates judicial review because a reviewing court will have the benefit of the Town’s findings and conclusions. Additionally exhaustion avoids premature decisions in questions entrusted to an administrative agency, allows that agency to develop a factual record, and to exercise its discretion and apply its expertise.
The Second Circuit recognized exceptions to the exhaustion requirement under Connecticut law – i.e. when the administrative remedy is futile or inadequate. A remedy is adequate when it can provide a plaintiff with all the relief sought and contains a mechanism for judicial review of that decision. While Plaintiff did seek review of the action regarding the zoning enforcement officer’s interpretation, she withdrew her actual zoning permit application – an action that could have determined the issue now sought to be litigated. To be reviewable, there must be a final decision to grant or deny an application for a certificate of zoning compliance. Here, the Plaintiff withdrew that application and thus never completed the very proceedings necessary to exhaust remedies, although those mechanisms existed. Moreover the possibility of denial is an insufficient basis to demonstrate futility. In order for the futility defense to operate, Plaintiff must show that the available remedy mechanism could not result in a favorable decision.
The court rejected Plaintiff’s further justification for use of a federal court in that the zoning board of appeals could not give her the specific relief she sought – i.e. estoppel of the Town to deny any prospective single-family home building permit. The court stated that it was not the type or label attached to the relief that had to be unavailable, but the relief itself, i.e. the issuance of building permit for a single-family home. If a remedy exists, it must be used before resort to the courts is had. If not, the courts lack jurisdiction to consider the matter. The trial court decision in this case was thus reversed.
This case is another object lesson for the need to complete local proceedings before resorting to the courts, especially the federal courts. One can just imagine the report of the lawyer for the landowner in this case when not prevailing after a great deal of now shown to be fruitless litigation.
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