This week the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a ruling in Frazier v. Town of Blowing Rock, 2022-NCCOA-782, that confirms the views of the Courts in this State that vague terms or ambiguity in language, in this case relating to a local zoning ordinance, will be viewed in favor of the free use of an owner’s property.
In the community and association world (HOA and Condominiums) we have seen this line of decisions from the courts before as they deem vague restrictions or covenants in association governing documents as void and unenforceable for vagueness. This holds true for local zoning ordinances as well.
The brief procedural history here is that Frazier purchased a property in 2016 from owners who acquired the property in 1981. Frazier maintained that property for short term rental use. In 1984 the Town’s Ordinances contained language stating “tourist homes and other temporary residences renting by the day or week”. In 2000 the Ordinance was amended to define “short-term rentals” as the “rental, lease, or use of an attached or detached residential dwelling unit that is less than 28 consecutive days”. The Town did not add “short-term rentals” to the Table of Permissible Uses until August 19, 2019, thus replacing the 1984 language. In September of 2019 Frazier was cited for violating the local ordinance prohibiting short-term rentals in their zoning district. The appeal of the notice of violation was heard by the Town of Blowing Rock Board of Adjustment before being appealed to Superior Court and later to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals states that “Ambiguity logically follows where two comparable, yet apparently distinct land use definitions simultaneously exits in the Town’s Ordinances, but only one is clearly prohibited by the Town’s Table of Permitted Uses.” Therefore, between the 2000 amendment until August of 2019, there was no real clarity regarding the regulation of short term rentals of less than 28 days. The Court of Appeals further affirmed that the Superior Court’s conclusion that short term rentals as defined in the 2000 amendment were not regulated by the Town of Blowing Rock until the August 2019 amendment, and since the property was acquired during that window of time, the use was nonconforming. Therefore under the terms of the Town of Blowing Rock’s own Ordinance the nonconforming use was considered grandfathered.
There are several, and some that are not addressed by this blog, but this case further solidifies the fact that words matter and that specificity matters. When terms are vague or when there are competing definitions, as was the case here, the Courts of this State will rule in favor of the free use of an owner’s property.
If you have questions related to this decision, land use, or community association matters, please contact one of our attorneys at Law Firm Carolinas.