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Old 10-26-2003, 09:23 AM   #99
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Trailers and Zoning Ordinances

This is a very interesting thread (long though it is) for someone who is both a trailer owner and former zoning administrator. In my experience, zoning ordinances are a lot like tax regulations--everyone's an expert but few really know the law.

I sympathize completely with folks who are caught in the middle of a zoning violation. There is nothing worse than having to deal with pointy-headed bureaucrats over such problems.

On the other hand, it is easy to blame one's problem on a civil servant trying to enforce a law on the books, and forget that it is one's obligation to know local rules. Zoning laws are no different than speed limits: Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Perhaps I can offer some general principals about zoning laws that will help members of this forum stay out of trouble with local zoning officials.

1. Before storing a trailer on your property (or parking it on the street) make sure that there is not a covenant or restriction preventing that. Subdivisions typically prevent this. If you're not sure, check your deed. If there is such a covenant, then you agreed to abide by it when you signed the deed.

2. Of course, there is nothing preventing you from ignoring such a covenant as long as it is not enforced. Enforcement is what homeowners' associations are responsible for. Do HOAs usually do that? No. Most HOAs don't have the money to hire a lawyer and fight you in court. But if your HOA enforces the covenant, and you are in violation of it, you will in all probability lose.

3. Covenants and zoning regulations are not the same thing. Covenants are part of private agreements between buyer and seller. This is a contractual arrangment, not a zoning ordinance. Some governmental jurisdictions may enforce covenants, but most do not. Just because you meet zoning requirements does not mean you are in compliance with your covenants (or vice-versa).

4. Most jurisdictions don't have the money to hire zoning inspectors. Therefore, their zoning enforcement is driven by complaints. That may not seem fair, but no one I know advocates raising taxes to hire zoning inspectors to make the system more equitable.

5. Turning in other zoning violations when you yourself get caught is generally not a good idea, as satisfying as it may seem. Typically, the motivation for doing so is to make work for the zoning folks--which it does--but mostly you end creating ill will and neighborhood resentment that lasts long after the zoning violation is forgotten.

5. Zoning ordinances always permit a way out for the most difficult situations: the variance. If you think you have been unfairly treated by zoning enforcement, you may request special treatment through a variance procedure. Technically, you are asking to "vary" the particular standard that prevents you from storing your trailer where to want to. Generally, in requesting a variance you must show that a "hardship" (or some similar situation) has been imposed on you by enforcement of the particular zoning provision. Maybe you can make that case or maybe you can't, there is no guarantee. However, in many juridictions storing or parking a trailer where it is not permitted in the first place will be defined as a "self-imposed hardship" for which a variance cannot be granted.

6. Because a zoning violations involve technical and legal considerations, you might want to obtain the advice of a land use attorney if you plan to fight the charge. In many cases, a little time with a lawyer who knows the local zoning ordinance well can give you a good idea of what you are up against and what you need to do to fight it effectively. In many cases, the zoning staff will be more than willing to give you the names of experienced land use lawyers. Zoning staff actually prefer dealing with knowledgeable parties because there will be fewer time-wasting irrelevancies to deal with.

7. Living or working out of your trailer is a whole 'nother set of problems, not just for zoning but for the board of health and building department as well. If you plan to do either, I strongly suggest you talk to all three departments first.

8. It's worth keeping in mind that zoning regulations are part of the local planning program which is owned by the community--that's you. If you don't like some of the provisions you have the absolute right (within constitutional limits) to change them. Every ordinance can be amended. Don't just complain, get out there and do something about it.

I hope this helps. Keep in mind that these comments are general in nature. Each community does things a little differently. It's not hard to review your community's zoning ordinance. Many are online now. Most libraries have copies of local plans and zoning ordinances. If nothing else, call your local planning office for a copy.

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Old 10-26-2003, 10:47 AM   #100
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Steve, it seems to me that your use should be grandfathered in. I do not understand why they told you you could, then told you, you could not.

Your first mistake was going to them, for an appeal. In these kinds of situations, it is better to "seek forgiveness, than to ask permission. Just lie low, and let them approach you.

I would be contacting a real estate agent. Not my kind of place to live.

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Old 10-26-2003, 12:53 PM   #101
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Thank you all for your encouragement. My van is insured as a motorhome & the title body style is listed as such. This Tuesday I spoke to the manufacturer's owner & was told that they often do entitle these as conversion vans to fight city restrictions. I may or may not be able to get the title changed 6 years after issuance. I am going to ask the manufacturer's owner for their help. The change may not help,but...

My options are: (1) request a rehearing, unfortunately they do not have to grant one, but I think I would get the 5 votes with the mayor there, especially if 3 new members win the election; (2) request the council provide an "interpretation" of the ordinance. In effect arguing that my vehicle was not meant to be regulated by the ordinance. This would be difficult to prove given the language of the ordinance describes a motorhome as any motor driven vehicle with temporary living quarters, sleeping accommodations or equipment." Broad enough that even a minivan with a fold down seat could be considered. But, I would only need a majority vote.; (3) File a slightly altered "new" appeal. Even the mayor & city atty said I might try this. I do not know if just getting the title body description changed would be enough; (4) file suit within 14 days in county court. This would put pressure on the city to settle to avoid legal fees & only a majority of the council would be needed to settle. But, my legal fees could reach $16,000 if a full trial follows. I will not go that far; (5) wait until after the Nov elections, work to get the fresh faces elected who all voiced support (2 have been to my house) & try to get the ordinance amended to allow vans like mine say under 22' in length; (6) reappeal after 1 year from the first appeal; (7) move, after living here over 22 years.

My atty of course advised me to use them to do any refiling, etc. Pretty costly just to do that. I did a pretty good job the first time & with what I have learned since believe I could succeed.

It's a shame that ordinances get passed pretty much in secret by a simple majority of 7 council members. (Yes, notices of the topic are posted in the local paper & on bulletin boards, but most residents never see them. ) But variances require a 2/3 vote of the full body whether in attendence or not.

I just got a letter form a trailer owner who got the same warning letter. He has sent $25 donations to 3 new council candidates with a letter asking to have the ordinance revisited. We are both working to get the new candidates elected. I may run in 2 years if I'm still here.

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Old 10-26-2003, 12:55 PM   #102
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Re: NO offense taken or implied

Originally posted by airstreamcaravel
You are not the only "rambler" here .... I think I as just practicing
for when I get face to face the village idiots! I appreciate your thoughts and feedback!

Still so mad I'm seeing SILVER!


This doesn't really help, except to say it really, really could be worse.
The city I live in does not allow anything except the house and approved outbuildings on your property. Vehicles have to be motorized and be licensed, insured and operable, AND be less than 20 feet long, total length. Also, no vehicle shall have commercial signage displayed on it (no commercial vehicles). A temporary permit for not longer than 14 days per 365 day period will be sold for an out-of-area registered motor home or travel trailer.
My trailer is now parked on its own 25 acre farm outside the city limits...
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Old 10-26-2003, 04:28 PM   #103
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From an exMichigander


In hind site (which is always 20/20) getting permission prior to the event was the right thing. Getting the permission in writing would have been the righter thing.

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Old 01-06-2004, 01:54 PM   #104
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Well, we did get 3 new council members elected. They said they would help me. I'm still waiting.

I filed an appeal with the county circuit court. I really do not want to spend the money to follow through (one atty estimated a cost of $15,000), but...

The city atty has cowed the council to not talk to me re: my issue because I'm appealing in court; "It's a legal issue". Last night they denied a long term boat owner from storing his 21' boat behind his house for the winter. But, several members did say they want to revisit the ordinance to maybe 'grandfather' certain current vehicles only. They looked at me.

The city atty told me this AM that he would offer me 12 months before enforcing the ordinance in exchange for me dropping the legal appeal. That he felt would be enough time for the council to revisit the ordinance if they wished. If I did this I would be throwing myself at the mercy of the council to act within 12 months. I think I could get 4 of the 7 to support me somehow...

I could try to get 25% (3,300) of the registered voters to sign a petition to throw out the ordinance. Then it would automatically happen & they could not pass another. But, not only would this be logistically difficult, there may not be that much support...

I'm nausiated and feel I may have to move, even though I like my house & the Lake St. Clair access. I wish I were a man of unlimited means as I believe a good atty would win my case & have the ordinance thrown out as unconstitutional.

What would you do?
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Old 01-06-2004, 02:16 PM   #105
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The city atty has cowed the council to not talk to me.....The city atty told me this

Get the offer in writing, and when you file papers dropping the suit, put in a clause to reactivate the lawsuit 10 months from the date of the City atty's signed offer to mitigate if no positive action is taken by that time.

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Old 01-06-2004, 02:29 PM   #106
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Would it be practical to build an addition to your house to house your motor home?
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Old 01-06-2004, 02:56 PM   #107
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Thanks for the speedy responses,

87MH: You make an interesting suggestion, but the city atty already said I would have to agree to not refile to get the 12 month extension.

Navigator: It would not be possible to add on to my house.
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Old 01-06-2004, 06:43 PM   #108
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Everything's negotiable...

Steve, the City Attorney wouldn't be offering you options if the city wanted to litigate this. Obviously they don't, either because they fear that the ordinance will be overturned or because the City doesn't want to expend the dollars that they'd have to spend to fight the suit. Either way, you win. Retain competent counsel and enter into negotiations with the City. Everything is up for grabs until your agreement is where you want it. Don't be buffaloed by the City attorney until you have your counsel examine what they've offered.

Best of luck.

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Old 01-06-2004, 07:41 PM   #109
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To add to Roger's quote of Ben ....... and in the long run they rarely achieve it!

I believe that based on your feeling..... "I'm nausiated and feel I may have to move, even though I like my house & the Lake St. Clair access. I wish I were a man of unlimited means as I believe a good atty would win my case & have the ordinance thrown out as unconstitutional." ..... that you are in the perfect spot! Because it's only from that spot that you will move forward to the end that you will want to create.

I agree with Roger that a letter from a your attorney indicating that you intend to stick with the building inspector's opinion and keep your "van" at home. It will let the city know that a 12 month storage at your own property is not acceptable in light of the decision from the building inspector. (I would follow the letter with a call to the city attorney stating that they can deal with you or with your attorney. It's their decision not yours, and they need to stick to it.)

Based on what you have written I get the feeling that the city would like you to go away. And if you stop now that's what will happen. You lose, and have to move your van. So if you keep the van how much will storage cost? If you sell it what will you lose there? And a letter from an attorney shouldn't cost too much.


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