Appeals Court upholds vacation property owner’s legal win over Currituck County

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has sided with the owner of a 15-thousand-square-foot coastal Currituck County vacation property in her long-running legal battle with neighbors and county government. The parties “have been embroiled in litigation” for over a decade.

A unanimous appellate panel upheld US District Judge Terrence Boyle’s 2022 ruling in favor of Elizabeth LeTendre, owner of the 24-bedroom, 25-bathroom property known as the Chesapeake. The legal battle has focused on whether the property complies with county and state zoning requirements.

The state Court of Appeals ruled against LeTendre in 2016 and 2018, but she argued that a change in state law in 2019 overruled the previous state court rulings.

The case dates back to 2011, when LeTendre purchased an oceanfront property in the Outer Banks. To comply with state agency regulations on setbacks, “her architect designed the home to have a central area and two side wings, each structurally independent of each other and less than 5,000 square feet,” according to the 4th Circuit opinion. Connected by enclosed, air-conditioned hallways, “the home is U-shaped.”

The Currituck County planning director agreed that the home was a “single-family detached dwelling” that complied with county rules. Neighbors Marie and Michael Long disagreed. They appealed to the county Board of Adjustment and to state court. LeTendre prevailed at the county level and with the trial court.

But the Appeals Court ruled that the Chesapeake featured three buildings and failed to comply with county restrictions. When the county issued a stop-work order on the structure, now “95% complete,” LeTendre sued Currituck in state court.

A trial court ruled for LeTendre, who completed construction of the building in 2017. Yet the county and the Longs appealed, and the state Court of Appeals ruled against LeTendre again in 2018.

“But everything changed on July 11, 2019, when the North Carolina legislature enacted Session Law 2019-111,” wrote 4th Circuit Chief Judge Albert Diaz. “That law amended a provision of the North Carolina zoning law, by adding the following italicized language: A county may not use a definition of building, dwelling, dwelling unit, bedroom, or sleeping unit that is inconsistent with any definition of the same in another statute or in a rule adopted by the State agency, including the State Building Code Council.”

“And it changed the prohibition against county definitions that are ‘more expansive than’ the corresponding state definitions, to prohibit county definitions that are ‘inconsistent with’ the State’s,” Diaz added.

After another trip to state court, LeTendre had the case moved to federal court. Boyle agreed with LeTendre’s argument that the 2019 law “abrogated” previous state court rulings against her.

“The court held that the County’s interpretation of a single-family detached dwelling, as applied to the Chesapeake, is ‘inconsistent with the State Building Code’s definition of a dwelling,’” Diaz wrote. “It acknowledged that the plain text of the state and county definitions of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ didn’t conflict. But it held that the terms ‘single-family detached dwelling’ and ‘one family dwelling’ were equivalent, and the legislative amendment barred the County from interpreting ‘single-family detached dwelling’ inconsistently with the Code’s definition of ‘one family dwelling.’”

“The court concluded that under the amendment, ‘a building cannot be determined to be a one family dwelling under the Residential Building Code but not a one-or-single family dwelling under a local zoning ordinance.’ So it granted LeTendre partial summary judgment,” Diaz explained.

Appellate judges agreed with Boyle’s reasoning.

“Under the legislative amendment, a county may not ‘use a definition’ of ‘building’ or ‘dwelling’ that ‘is inconsistent with any definition of those terms … in a rule or statute adopted by a State agency, including the State Building Code Council,’” Diaz wrote. “And we read the amendment not merely to bar inconsistencies in the literal text of the state and county definitions, but also to bar inconsistent applications of those definitions.”

“If the County’s definition or interpretation of ‘building’ in its Ordinance conflicts with the Building Code Council’s rule — here, the state Residential Building Code — the Council’s definition governs. We hold that it does, so the amendment makes the Chesapeake compliant with both zoning codes,” Diaz explained.

“Simply put, ‘building’ can’t mean one thing under the Code and something else under the Ordinance,” he added. “As the Building Code Council implicitly found, a three-wing structure with three foundations (no matter its size) is one building under the Code’s definition. So a three-wing structure with three foundations must likewise be one building under the Ordinance’s definition. Otherwise, the Code and the Ordinance will define ‘building’ inconsistently, in violation of the amendment.”

Appellate Judge Stephanie Thacker and US District Judge Julie Rubin of Maryland joined Diaz’s opinion.

The post Appeals Court upholds vacation property owner’s legal win over Currituck County first appeared on Carolina Journal.


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