Vermont Supreme Court Issues New Ruling On “Void for Vagueness” Challenges to Zoning Regulations, Holds Definition of “Family” is Valid

In a recent decision regarding a zoning enforcement case prosecuted by Stitzel, Page & Fletcher on behalf of the Town of Fairfax (the “Town”) against Defendant Leon Beliveau (“Defendant”), the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed a judgment that Defendant operated an unpermitted rooming-and-boarding house and upheld the trial court’s assessment of a $63,142 penalty as reasonable. In re Beliveau NOV, 2013 VT 41, The substantial fines were based on Defendant’s stream of rental revenues from operation of a rooming and boarding house, which use continued for several years after receiving a notice of violation (“NOV”) for a change of use without a permit from the property’s permitted single family dwelling use.

The Court’s decision is also significant for its ruling that the Town’s zoning regulations’ definitions of the terms “family” and “rooming-and-boarding house” are not unconstitutionally vague. Constitutional due process requires laws and regulations to be sufficiently clear and specific so as to provide notice to ordinary people of what conduct is prohibited and to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Id. ¶ 15. Perhaps signifying a shift from the broader language the Court used to find regulatory language too vague to be enforceable in In re JAM Golf, 2008 VT 110, the Court in Beliveau NOV undertook an exacting analysis of Defendant’s “void for vagueness” challenge.

The Court’s analysis of the definition of “family” has broad implications because similar definitions of the term appear in most if not all Vermont zoning regulations. In defining “single-family dwelling” use, the Fairfax regulations stated “[f]or the purpose of this definition, a ‘family’ shall mean one or more persons living as a household unit … .” The Supreme Court agreed with the Town and rejected Defendant’s arguments that this definition lacks clarity and that the required examination of the actual household dynamic and interactions infringes on a homeowner’s right to privacy. Because there was no evidence to indicate that the boarders and Defendant functioned together as a single household unit, the Court upheld the trial court’s ruling that the use could not be regarded as a single-family dwelling use.

For more information on this case and land use and zoning matters in general, please contact Stitzel, Page & Fletcher.