Fourth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Constitutional Challenges to Zoning Ordinance Changes


On October 13, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided the case of Siena Corporation v. Mayor and City Council of Rockville, Maryland, et al. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint that an amendment to Rockville’s “Light Industrial” municipal zoning ordinance was unconstitutional as being violative of the due process and equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The ordinance made it impossible for Siena Corporation to build on its property a large self-storage facility within 250 feet of a public school.

After learning of Siena’s plans to build this facility, Rockville residents persuaded the City Council to amend the local zoning code to impose a condition which forbids the construction of this project within 250 feet of lots with public schools. Although the Planning Commission itself conditionally agreed to Siena Corporation’s site plan, the City Council narrowly approved these changes to the zoning code in February 2015, and Siena Corporation then filed this lawsuit in state court against the City Council, the Mayor and two City Council members, but it never actually applied for a permit. The City removed the case to federal court, which then denied the Siena Corporation’s constitutional and state law claims.

The Court of Appeals reviewed Siena’s substantive due process and equal protection claims, and determined that Siena Corporation “lacked the sort of property interest the Fourteenth Amendment protects.” In failing to apply for a permit, “Siena has blithely bypassed Maryland’s prescribed zoning processes.” In addition, for a substantive due process claim to be successful, the actions taken by the City Council must “be conscience shocking in a constitutional sense,” and that factor was not present here.

With regard to the equal protection argument, the Court of Appeals noted that the test is simply whether “ the governmental interest is legitimate and whether the ends chosen to further that end are rationally related.” The Court of Appeals concluded that the choices made by the City Council are “constitutionally unremarkable”: this is a “garden-variety zoning dispute recast in constitutional terms,” and accordingly the Court of Appeals declined the Siena Corporation’s invitation to invade City Hall and instead, it will “leave the job of legislating to those elected to perform it.”