Zoning Ordinance

Zoning Ordinance, Review of

Except as indicated, all indented material is copied directly from the court’s opinion. 

Decisions of the Tennessee Supreme Court

Decisions of the Tennessee Court of Appeals

Rama, Inc. v. City of Chattanooga, Tennessee, City Council, No. E2022-01506-COA-R3-CV, p. 6-7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 6, 2023). 

Administrative zoning decisions are reviewed through the common law writ of certiorari. Venture Holdings, LLC v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cnty. by & through Metro. Bd. of Zoning Appeals, 585 S.W.3d 409, 416 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2019) (quoting Gulley v. Robertson Cnty. Planning & Zoning Comm’n, No. M2015-00734-COA- R3-CV, 2016 WL 2898478, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 12, 2016)). “Under the common law writ of certiorari, the reviewing court must examine whether the [decisionmaker] acted illegally, arbitrarily, fraudulently, or in excess of its jurisdiction.” Id. “In doing so, the court determines ‘whether there is any material evidence that supports the action of the [decisionmaker].’” Id. (quoting Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. of Nashville, Inc. v. Metro. Bd. of Health for Nashville & Davidson Cnty., 934 S.W.2d 40, 49 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1996)). “Courts must not ‘reweigh the evidence’ or ‘scrutinize the intrinsic correctness of the decision,’ but independently review the record to ‘determine whether it contains such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a rational conclusion.’” Id. (quoting Lafferty v. City of Winchester, 46 S.W.3d 752, 759 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000) (internal quotations omitted)). “If no evidence supports the action of the administrative board, then that action is arbitrary.” Harding Acad. v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cnty., 222 S.W.3d 359, 363 (Tenn. 2007) (citing Demonbreun v. Metro. Bd. of Zoning Appeals, 206 S.W.3d 42, 46 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005)). “‘A denial of a zoning permit which meets all the requirements of the ordinance when there is no valid ground for denial is arbitrary and unreasonable.’” Id. (quoting Merritt v. Wilson Cnty. Bd. of Zoning Appeals, 656 S.W.2d 846, 854 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1983)).

“A challenge to the evidentiary foundation for a local zoning decision presents a question of law, which we review de novo with no presumption of correctness.” Venture Holdings, LLC, 585 S.W.3d at 417 (quoting Gulley, 2016 WL 2898478, at *2). This Court’s review of the evidence on appeal is no broader or more comprehensive than the trial court’s review. Id. However, “[i]n reviewing a zoning action, an appellate court must do so with the recognition that ‘the discretionary authority of the government body must be exercised within existing standards and guidelines.’” Wilson Cnty. Youth Emergency Shelter, Inc. v. Wilson Cnty., 13 S.W.3d 338, 342 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999) (quoting McCallen, 786 S.W.2d at 639).

City of Orlinda, Tennessee v. Robertson County, Tennessee, No. M2021-01505-COA-R3-CV, p. 4-5 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2023). 

When reviewing a municipality’s zoning decisions, our Supreme Court has explained the limited nature of our review as follows:

Inasmuch as zoning laws are in derogation of the common law and operate to deprive a property owner of a use of land that would otherwise be lawful, such laws are to be strictly construed in favor of the property owner. State ex rel Wright v. City of Oak Holl, 321 S.W>2d 557, 559 (Tenn. 1959). “Legislative classifications in a zoning law, ordinance or resolution is valid if any possible reason can be conceived to justify it.” State ex rel SCA Chem. Waste Servs. Inc. v. Konigsberg, 636 S.W.2d 430, 437 (Tenn. 1982). As we found in McCallen v. City of Memphis, “the court’s primary resolve is to refrain from substituting its judgment for that of the local governmental body. An action will be invalidated only if it constitutes an abuse of discretion. If ‘any possible reason’ exists justifying the action, it will be upheld.” 786 S.W.2d 633, 641 (Tenn. 1990).

Edwards v. Allen, 216 S.W.3d 278, 284-85 (Tenn. 2007). Stated another way, “‘in cases where the validity of a zoning ordinance is fairly debatable, the court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the legislative authority.’” Fallin v. Knox Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 656 S.W.2d 338, 342 (Tenn. 1983) (quoting 82 AM. JUR. 2d Zoning and Planning § 338 (1976) at 913-14); see also Keeton v. City of Gatlinburg, 684 S.W.2d 97, 98 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984) (holding that where a municipal body acts in zoning matters, the “court’s inquiry is limited as to whether any rational basis exists for the legislative action and, if the issue is fairly debatable, it must be permitted to stand as valid . . .”). We must favor “permitting the community decision-makers closest to the events to make the decision.” Lafferty v. City of Winchester, 46 S.W.3 752 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000). Therefore, “the exercise of zoning power should not be subjected to judicial interference unless clearly necessary.” Fallin, 656 S.W.2d at 342 (quoting 82 Am. Jur. 2d Zoning and Planning Sec. 338 (1976) at 913-14).


Luna v. Dickson County, Tennessee, No. M2021-00543-COA-R3-CV, 4-5  (Tenn. Ct. App. May 27, 2022).

This Court has previously examined our role when interpreting and applying a zoning resolution:

The interpretation of a zoning ordinance and its application to a particular set of facts are, in the first instance, questions for decision by local officials. Courts are hesitant to interfere with decisions by local zoning officials unless clearly necessary and will not substitute their judgment for that of the local zoning officials. See Hoover, 955 S.W.2d at 54 (citing McCallen, 786 S.W.2d at 639); Whittemore v. Brentwood Planning Comm’n., 835 S.W.2d 11, 15 (Tenn. [Ct.] App.1992). However, while courts may defer to local officials’ interpretations where the interpretation is fairly debatable and the ordinance is ambiguous, they will set aside an interpretation which is arbitrary and capricious, contrary to the drafters’ intent, or which undermines the ordinance’s validity. Whittemore, 835 S.W.2d at 16.

We interpret these and other relevant authorities to mean that our role is not to provide the initial interpretation of the Ordinance. . . . If the Ordinance may reasonably be interpreted more than one way, we will not substitute our judgment of the more preferable interpretation as long as the board’s choice has a reasoned basis.

Brunetti, 1999 WL 802725, at *5. With regard to the quantum of evidence that constitutes “material evidence,” our Supreme Court has explained:

“material evidence” is relevant evidence that a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a rational conclusion. Hedgepath v. Norton, 839 S.W.2d 416, 421 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992) (quoting Pace v. Garbage Disposal Dist., 390 S.W.2d 461, 463 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1965)). The amount of material evidence required to support an agency’s decision “must exceed a scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Leonard Plating Co. v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cty., 213 S.W.3d 898, 904 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006).

Heyne v. Metro. Nashville Bd. of Pub. Educ., 380 S.W.3d 715, 738 (Tenn. 2012).

                   Editor’s Note: and at page 7

We are directed to give “wide latitude to local officials who are responsible for implementing zoning ordinances” and we must “refrain from substituting [our] judgment[s] for that of the local governmental officials.” State ex rel. Moore & Assocs., Inc. v. West, 246 S.W.3d 569, 575 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005).



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