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Doe v. City of Butler

argued: June 15, 1989.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil No. 88-0915.

Sloviter and Cowen, Circuit Judges, and Jane R. Roth, District Judge*fn*

Author: Sloviter


SLOVITER, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs, who seek to represent a class of battered women in need of temporary shelter in Butler County, Pennsylvania to escape infliction of domestic violence, filed a class action suit challenging on constitutional and statutory grounds Butler's zoning regulation which limits transitional dwellings to a total of six persons and a supervisory family or person. In their complaint, plaintiffs claimed, inter alia, that the six-person limit for transitional dwellings is a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, associational rights protected by the First Amendment, and the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 3601-3631 (1982).

After a hearing on plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, the district court held that the six-person line drawn in the ordinance was not arbitrary, and rejected the constitutional and statutory arguments. The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment and the court entered summary judgment for defendants. Plaintiffs filed a timely notice of appeal. Our review over the entry of summary judgment is plenary.


Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiffs are three battered women using fictitious names who filed suit in district court in the Western District of Pennsylvania after the defendants, the City of Butler, acting through the City Council, and the Mayor, refused to approve the application by the Volunteers Against Abuse Center of Butler County, Inc. (VAAC) seeking to use a building at 404 N. Washington Street, which it had contracted to buy, as a temporary shelter for abused women and children. VAAC's purchase was being funded in part by a $100,000 grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant was tied to the specific location chosen by VAAC to establish its group home.

After a public hearing, the Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the application for a conditional use, subject to the condition that a maximum of six individuals, exclusive of staff but including children, be housed at the shelter. The City Council rejected this recommendation and denied VAAC's application on the ground that VAAC "has not established that the proposed use is within the provisions of the Zoning Ordinance" limiting transitional dwellings to six residents, excluding staff or supervisory personnel referred to above. The Council identified as additional reasons for its disapproval of VAAC's application the adverse impact of the shelter on density, parking, property values, and on the neighborhood's character as single-family residential.

The district court held that "[regardless] of the merits of the other reasons the Council proffered for rejecting the VAAC's application . . . the Council had no choice but to deny the application as prohibited by the Ordinance's six person limit." App. at 9. The court concluded that the line drawn in the zoning ordinance in limiting transitional dwellings to six persons was not arbitrary.

The court recognized that the plaintiffs have been consistent in their insistence that a transitional dwelling for abused women which did not house twelve to fifteen women and children was economically unfeasible. It held, citing Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1, 4-5, 39 L. Ed. 2d 797, 94 S. Ct. 1536 (1974), that because the wisdom of the line drawn is debatable, plaintiffs must fail. For the same reasons, the district court thereafter granted summary judgment against plaintiffs.


The Zoning Ordinance

Butler's zoning ordinance creates four classes of residential districts, two classes of commercial districts, and two classes of industrial districts. See Butler, Pa., Codified Ordinances Part Thirteen, title three. The uses allowed in each class are divided into permitted uses, which are "expressly allowed to occur on a property", art. 1303.89, accessory uses, which are uses subordinate and incidental to the primary use of property, art. 1303.02, and conditional uses, the approval of which are subject to the discretion of the City Council, art. 1355. The approval of a conditional use can only come after the City Council has received a recommendation by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which has the authority to call a public hearing on the application. Art. 1355.02. The Planning and Zoning Commission, in deciding whether to recommend approval or disapproval of an application for a conditional use, shall consider if "[the] use is of such location, size and character that in a general way it will be in harmony with the appearance and orderly development of the district in which it is situated, and not be detrimental to the orderly development of adjacent districts." Art. 1355.03(a).

Of most relevance in this appeal are the residential districts created by the ordinance. An R-1 low density residential district permits single-family detached dwellings as of right, art. 1325.01, and allows as conditional uses schools, libraries, public recreation facilities, churches, and certain local government buildings, art. 1325.03. An R-2 medium density district includes as permitted uses single and two-family dwellings, art. 1327.01, and allows as conditional uses those conditional uses permitted in an R-1 district as well as townhouses and certain neighborhood commercial activities, such as grocery stores, drug stores, banks, dry cleaning stores, bars and restaurants, art. 1327.03. An R-3 high density residential district adds as a permitted use multiple-dwelling buildings, art. 1329.01, and adds as conditional uses row houses and hospitals, art. 1329.03. Finally, an R-O residential office district includes as permitted uses churches, libraries, offices and schools, art. 1331.01, and as conditional uses hotels and motels, art. 1331.03.

The parties agree that the group home VAAC sought to establish is representative of the type of temporary shelter for abused women which is the subject of the complaint, and is best classified as a "transitional dwelling" under the Butler zoning ordinance. The ordinance defines a transitional dwelling as "a building occupied for residential purposes by not more than six individuals being provided temporary special care plus supervisory family or individual. Such transitional dwellings may be operated for the benefit of foster-placed individuals, for those recovering from drug, alcoholic or other diseases or those unable because of mental or physical handicaps to care for themselves." Art. 1303.44. All four categories of residential districts classify a transitional dwelling as a conditional use.*fn1




The Due Process Claim

Before turning to the applicable legal principles it is important to try to focus on precisely what is before us. It is possible that the parties' lack of clarity on that score stems from the fact that the record in this case was made primarily in the context of a motion for a preliminary injunction directed to the authorization for the occupancy of the Washington Street house. It is evident from the complaint, however, that the plaintiffs' suit challenges more than the specific denial of the conditional use authorization for the occupancy of 404 Washington Street as a shelter for abused women and their children.

The other claim made in the complaint requests a permanent injunction enjoining the defendants "from enforcing those parts of its zoning provisions which: 1) Permit the denial of a group living facility where all legitimate zoning concerns have been satisfied; and 2) Arbitrarily limit the occupancy of group living facilities to six residents in need of care and support." Unlike the claim directed to the Washington Street house, which is located in an R-2 district, the latter claim is not limited to the R-2 medium density district. We must therefore consider whether, as a matter of law, summary judgment was proper not only with respect to the denial of conditional use authorization of the Washington Street House but also with respect to plaintiffs' broader challenge to the across-the-board occupancy limit of six residents.

It has long been clear that zoning legislation is entitled to deference and respect. As the Supreme Court declared in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365, 388, 71 L. Ed. 303, 47 S. Ct. 114 (1926), "[if] the validity of the legislative classification for zoning purposes be fairly debatable, the legislative judgment must be allowed to control." See also Nectow v. City of Cambridge, 277 U.S. 183, 188, 72 L. Ed. 842, 48 S. Ct. 447 (1928) (zoning restrictions must be upheld if they "bear a substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare"). More concretely, we must uphold a zoning ordinance if the legislation is reasonable and not arbitrary and bears a rational relationship to a permissible state objective. See Schad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim, 452 U.S. 61, 68, 68 L. Ed. 2d 671, 101 S. Ct. 2176 (1981); Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1, 8, 39 L. Ed. 2d 797, 94 S. Ct. 1536 (1974). Moreover, "the burden is on one complaining of a due process violation to establish that the legislature has acted in an arbitrary and irrational way." Usery v. Turner Elkhorn Mining Co., 428 U.S. 1, 15, 49 L. Ed. 2d 752, 96 S. Ct. 2882 (1976).

We must consider at the outset plaintiffs' argument that the ordinance should be reviewed under the heightened scrutiny appropriate when a government regulation affects a fundamental right. The district court rejected their argument on the ground that the ordinance is not aimed at a suspect or quasi-suspect class.

The fact that plaintiffs have chosen to establish a home for abused women does not mean that a neutral zoning provision applicable to that dwelling can be viewed as a sex-based regulation. Plaintiffs, however, argue that the ordinance has an adverse impact on families, because women in need of shelter often have small children who are counted as residents for purposes of the six-person limitation in transitional dwellings. This renders six-resident shelters for abused women ...

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