If a zoning statute or ordinance sets out permitted uses in a zone, and uses that are not permitted in the zone, and a property owner wants to make a use not permitted in the zone, all she needs to do is apply for a variance, or a Conditional Use Permit, or a nonconforming use permit, or a Special Use Permit, right? After all, isn’t the point of these exceptions to bright-line use prohibitions is to build in a large degree of flexibility and afford front-line regulators the discretion to grant a use that the legislature prohibited? One size does not fit all, does it? 

That was the issue that closely divided the Hawaii Supreme Court in Hoomoana Foundation v. Land Use Comm’n, No. SCWC-17-181 (Mar. 10, 2023). In a 3-2 opinion, the court concluded that when a use is expressly barred by a zoning statute (and yes, here it is a zoning statute because Hawaii has state-controlled zoning) you cannot ask for a Special Permit to make that use. The only way you can make a use expressly prohibited by the statute is to change the parcel’s zoning.

The Case and the Issue

Here’s the story. The Foundation wanted to set up an “overnight campground for homeless and commercial campers” (slip op. at 3) on land it leased, which was zoned by the State as Agriculture (B-rated soil, if you are interested):

16. Under Ho’omoana’s proposal, the Project would consist of 2 acres, while the remaining adjacent 5.9 acres would be reserved as an agricultural field to be used by the campground occupants for therapy and work. It is envisioned that the [homeless] campers may work in the agricultural field to supplement their rental fees. Homeless campers are expected to pay $10 a night, while the commercial campers would be charged more. The camping fees are anticipated to underwrite the expenses of the campground. Although some of the campers may wish to participate in farming activities on the Property, there is no guarantee that the agricultural field would result in future agricultural productivity nor is there a current requirement placed upon the campers to engage in agricultural pursuits.

17. The 2-acre area of the Project would have up to 26 pods for tents accommodating up to 80 people. Tents are to be provided by the campers. It is intended that both the homeless campers and the commercial campers would be camping alongside each other. In addition to the pods, showers, toilet facilities, fire pits or camp stove areas, a paved parking area, and a charging station for campers are proposed. Homeless campers would be allowed to stay for two to three months or more as approved by the campground manager. It is unclear how long commercial campers would be allowed to use the grounds, but any stay would need to be approved by the manager.

Slip op. at 4.

Problem is, the Agricultural district doesn’t seem to allow for overnight camping. The statute says that recreational uses like day camping is permitted, but expressly excludes “overnight camps” as allowed uses:

Within the agricultural district … all lands … shall be restricted to the following permitted uses: … Public and private open area types of recreational uses, including day camps … but not including … overnight camps[.]

Haw. Rev. Stat. § 205-4.5(a)(6).

But an adjacent statute also allows a request for a Special Use Permit, for “unusual and reasonable uses within agricultural and rural districts other than those for which the district is classified.” Haw. Rev. Stat. § 205-6. So what’s the deal, can a county Planning Commission or the state Land Use Commission consider a special use permit to allow a use expressly prohibited by the zoning statute?

What Happened

The Foundation thought so, and asked the Maui County Planning Commission for a Special Permit to allow the overnight homeless and commercial campground project as a “unusual and reasonable use.” The Foundation also had behind it a Hawaii Supreme Court case, Mahaulepu v. Land Use Comm’n, 71 Haw. 332, 790 P.2d 906 (1990), which held that a use not permitted under section 205-4.5(a)(6) might well be authorized via a special use permit.

But neighbors who object to the project asked the State Land Use Commission for a declaratory ruling that the proposed use of Agricultural land requires a zoning change (known in the parlance of Hawaii’s statewide zoning scheme as a “boundary amendment”), and cannot be accomplished ad hoc by a discretionary special use permit.

The LUC agreed with the neighbors, concluding that the overnight camping project could not be approved by way of a special use permit, but that there must be a change in the zoning in order to allow it. By expressly prohibiting “overnight camping,” the legislature had, in effect, already made the determination that overnight camping was not an unusual and reasonable use. Thus, no special use permit.

The Foundation appealed to a state trial court under the Administrative Procedures Act. It argued that the special use permit statute doesn’t expressly preclude asking for an exception for uses prohibited by the zoning, and moreover, that Mahahulepu case held that doing so is just fine. The trial court bought the Foundation’s argument and reversed the Land Use Commission.

Next stop, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals, which seemed to go both ways on the issues:

The ICA concluded it was bound by Mahaʻulepu, making the LUC’s decision contradicting Mahaʻulepu palpably erroneous. However, the ICA observed that the specific exclusion of overnight camps should control over the general availability of special permits in keeping with canons of statutory construction and furthering the statutory scheme.

Slip op. at 11.

Majority: The Statute Bars Overnight Camping, And That’s That

Final stop, discretionary review by the Hawaii Supreme Court. There, a three-Justice majority (Nakayama, Wilson, Eddins) overruled the Mahahulepu case, and concluded that no, you cannot ask for a special use permit if the use you are seeking is expressly prohibited in the zoning statute:

HRS §§ 205-4.5(a)(6) and 205-6 are clear: the “public and private open area types of recreational uses” of “dragstrips, airports, drive-in theaters, golf courses, golf driving ranges, country clubs, and overnight camps” are not permitted on class A and B agricultural land, and cannot be permitted by special use permit.

Slip op. at 19-20 (footnote omitted).

Relying on statutory text, legislative history, and the canon of statutory construction that the specific controls over the general, the majority concluded that the point of chapter 205 is the protection and preservation of agricultural lands, and allowing a use to be made of agricultural land that is expressly prohibited by the zoning statute would not “promote the effectiveness and objectives of this chapter” as the special use permit statute requires. Slip op. at 18.

Having concluded that a special use permit isn’t the way one might ask to establish an overnight campground on agricultural land, the majority held that the only way for the Foundation to get its overnight camping project approved would be to seek a “boundary amendment” (aka zoning change) to change the zoning from Agricultural “to one where recreational overnight camps are permitted.” Slip op. at 21.

As for Mahahulepu? Overruled. That decision was the product of “flawed” reasoning (that case held that golf courses, another use expressly prohibited by the statute on Agricultural land, could be approved by way of a special use permit), and “failed to engage with the plain language of [the statute] prohibiting certain uses[.]” Slip op. at 22.

Dissent: The Statute Prohibits “Recreational” Uses, Which This Isn’t

Two Justices (Chief Justice Recktenwald and Justice McKenna) saw it differently. Stare decisis cautions against lightly overruling cases that are only 30 years old, “[w]hether or not we agree with its reasoning[.]” Dissent at 2. After all, the legislature has had ample time to supersede Mahahulepu, but it hasn’t done so.

More interestingly, the dissenters did not view the proposal for an overnight homeless campground as a “recreational use” included in the statute’s express prohibition. Dissent at 9-10 (“An overnight campground for unsheltered persons is not a ‘recreational’ use.”). Thus, at least that part of the project might be subject to approval on Agricultural land, because the statute only bars “recreational uses” (and then lists out examples, including overnight camping. The dissenters also were troubled by the Land Use Commission barring the Foundation from intervening in the declaratory ruling process initiated by the neighbors, “some of whom asserted ‘not in my backyard’ concerns. Dissent at 14-15 (footnote omitted).

Some Thoughts On Bright Lines and Ad Hoccery

Overall, this one isn’t terribly surprising, given the Hawaii Supreme Court’s wanting to keep a tight rein on land use issues, and its record of reading exceptions to the court’s view of the meaning of statutes and ordinances very narrowly. The court, for example, falls squarely in the “narrow” approach to variances.

And we have to agree more with the majority on this one, but for slightly different reasons. We don’t really focus on the statutory interpretation as the majority reasoned (after all, it seems you might read the statute both as the majority and as the dissenters did). Instead, we see this one as a push in the correct direction on a larger-scope issue. That being what we see as a trend in land use regulation to paint with a very broad brush in a statute or ordinance, and then rely on administrative or agency officials to exercise discretion to craft ad hoc exceptions. 

To us, this is a bad trend. The problem with “ban use X by law, but allow a discretionary process that might allow use X” is that it shifts the locus of land use regulation from elected officials and legislative judgments to discretionary administrative determinations made by unelected officials (aka bureaucrats). It also seems to favor old-hand insiders who know how to play the system, legally or otherwise. It might not matter whether you can read the law, but it does matter who you know at the Planning Commission or the Land Use Commission.

Bear with us while we play this out. Let’s say the legislature has decided to prohibit certain uses in a certain zone and writes the statute or the ordinance that way. Landowners may not like the restrictions because, well, they are restrictions on their use of their land, but at least having a clear line about what is allowed and what isn’t fixes a position to which property owners can react and plan. But let’s also say that the legislature also includes in the law that in specific cases, an administrative official has the discretion to effectively overrule the legislature’s judgment and permit a use that is expressly prohibited. This leaves what should be legislative judgments up to the discretion of nonlegislative officials. 

What’s wrong with that, you ask? After all, as noted at the start of this post, one size does not fit all and shouldn’t the law itself account for situations in the grey areas that cannot be accounted for when a legislature regulates property? Don’t we want to provide landowners with the chance of making a certain use of their property even though a zoning ordinance or statute prohibits it? Flexibility!

It’s All Discretionary, Son

In our view, the “everything is discretionary” approach is a recipe for administrative gamesmanship, and runs counter to the idea that to be a valid exercise of police powers, land use regulation should be comprehensive and part of a bigger plan. Maybe more importantly, this type of scheme not only makes arbitrary decisions more likely, it allows government to create “permit purgatories” where property owners are sent to wither on the vine, especially where the legislatively-adopted regulation bars all uses.

In those cases, instead of having to face the takings music for a regulation that prohibits all economic uses, the government gets off the hook if it can point a court to the mere possibility that it might waive, overlook, or vary the restriction. And once a court hears from the government that there is some theoretical possibility that the use prohibited by the statute or ordinance might be allowed if only the property owner asked the right person in the right way (and that person makes a response that can be deemed “final”) the judge’s interest switch turns to “off” and the court can confidently kick the case for being unripe. We are referring of course to the “final decision” requirement of Williamson County. Because when there is any discretion in the process, courts are loathe to evaluate takings claims on the merits, on the theory that the government might — just might! — exercise its discretion and allow what its own statutes or ordinances plainly and expressly prohibit.

Perhaps the most glaring example of how this dynamic enables administrative and judicial gamesmanship is California Public Resources Code § 30010, which has been interpreted as providing both the California Coastal Commission and local governments the complete and total discretion to overrule or ignore any restrictive regulation in the coastal zone, if the CCC or a local government can be convinced by the property owner that to apply the statute or ordinance as written would result in a taking. And believe us, the California Coastal Act and local coastal ordinances are full of restrictions that prohibit any and all economically-beneficial uses. But because section 30010 seems to leave open the possibility that these restrictions may be waived ad hoc (if only the property owner asked the right person the right way), courts never get to the merits. “Just ask for an exemption,” they counsel landowners, ignoring protestations that these discretionary approvals are more imaginary than a real possibility, and that assembling a request to exercise discretion can be eye-wateringly expensive.

You don’t have to be in the land use game all that long to see the evil genius in this, at least the way the courts read this statute: not only does this put the owner into permit purgatory where government is incentivized to avoid taking a concrete position about what its restrictions allow and what they prohibit, this procedure forces a property owner to present her constitutional takings claims to the very government that she claims is violating her rights, upon pain of a 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6) dismissal if she files a takings lawsuit before the government responds. Yet the Supreme Court says it does not require exhaustion of administrative remedies in takings cases.

But these discretionary purgatories take the foundation of the constitutionality of zoning as expressed in Euclid — the assumption that land use regulations are constitutional because they are the product of big picture thinking and a comprehensive plan — and inverts it so that every decision is discretionary and case-by-case. The reality is that these “exceptions” are granted rarely, and the process isn’t so much designed to get to a “yes” or “no” on what uses might be allowed on a particular parcel, but are often there more as a “takings avoidance” tool like section 30010, where property owners are forced into an open-ended maze and the government does everything it can to strenuously avoid making any decision. That way, the owner remains stuck in the discretionary maze, never to receive an answer, until the owner throws in the towel, after bleeding out financially or spiritually.

This is rational land use planning?

It isn’t, but most federal courts have accepted it as the way the land regulation game is played. So kudos Hawaii Supreme Court, for holding the legislature to what it said in the statute, and not allowing unelected members of a county planning commission or the state Land Use Commission decide that in this case, the statute is meaningless.

Hoomoana Foundation v. Land Use Comm’n, No. SCWC-17-0000181 (Haw. Mar. 10, 2023)