On October 16, 2014, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (the Law Court) issued a decision in the case of Remmel v. City of Portland, reversing a finding by the Maine Superior Court that the Portland City Council’s approval of a conditional zoning agreement (CZA) was inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.  The Law Court’s decision in this case is significant because if it had upheld the Superior Court decision, it would have been the first Law Court decision to find that a municipal zoning action was inconsistent with a municipality’s comprehensive plan.

The case arose when 32 Thomas Street, LLC, the owner of a parcel in Portland’s West End (in the R-4 zone) that includes a 140-year-old church and a connected parish house, applied to the city for conditional rezoning of the property to permit renovation of residential space on the top two floors of the parish house and the creation of office space for Majella Global Technologies on the house’s first floor. 

After 32 Thomas Street’s proposed CZA was approved by the city council, the project’s neighbors, the Remmels, filed suit, challenging the legality of the CZA.  The Superior Court held in favor of the Remmels, finding that the CZA was inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan and that the CZA violated state law by allowing a new use that was inconsistent with existing and permitted uses in the R-4 zone.  

On appeal, the Law Court reversed the Superior Court on both points.

First, the Law Court upheld the council’s determination that the CZA was consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.  In making this finding, the court noted that the city’s comprehensive plan established two goals relevant to the case: (1) promoting an economic climate that increases job opportunities and overall economic well being, and (2) preserving the state’s historic and technological resources. The court also pointed out that while the city’s comprehensive plan did reference the importance of preserving the “unique character” of the R-4 zone, the plan did not expressly prohibit nonresidential uses in the zone.  

Therefore, because the city (1) approved the CZA only after attaching conditions to ensure that the CZA was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, (2) had evidence that the CZA would promote economic development by allowing Majella to remain in Portland, and (3) had evidence from a professional architect regarding the potential costs and benefits to the neighborhood, the court concluded that the council had a rational basis for concluding that the CZA was consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.

The court next upheld the council’s determination under § 4352(8)(B) that the proposed use contemplated by the CZA was “in basic harmony with uses in the neighborhood,” and was consistent with the existing and permitted uses within the R-4 zone.  The court determined that the council had a rational basis for that conclusion because the proposed use was consistent with other uses, namely home occupations and conditional uses such as institutional uses, places of assembly, daycare facilities, nursery schools, and sheltered care group homes, that are allowed in the R-4 zone.

Taken as a whole, this case stands most significantly for the proposition that courts should give strong deference to a municipal authority’s own determination as to whether a particular land use is consistent with the municipality’s comprehensive plan, absent clear inconsistency. This is illustrated by the fact that the Law Court has yet to find a municipal zoning determination to be inconsistent with a municipality’s comprehensive plan.