Subject Area

Civil Procedure; Environmental Law; Courts; Jurisprudence; Injury and Tort Law


Zoning disputes provide many Americans with their only firsthand exposure to the workings of democratic government. Land use issues trigger participation because neighbors perceive the wrong kind of development as posing a double-barreled threat to the stability of the community in which they have chosen to live and to the economic value of their homes. The protagonists in zoning disputes-landowners and neighbors-invest time and other resources to persuade the relevant decisionmakers to rule in the protagonists’ favor. When the parties make that investment, should they assume that a decision made today will have some enduring significance? Whether the decision is “final” may play an important role in shaping the parties’ participation and presentations. If a zoning board were free to deny a variance today and to grant the identical variance next week (or next year), there would be less reason for neighbors (and landowner applicants) to spend time and money framing their arguments for today’s decision. Many of the reasons that underlie res judicata doctrine apply to these local land use disputes. In the interest of conserving the resources of all parties- landowners, neighbors, and local decisionmakers-issues should be decided once, not multiple times. There is little reason to think that, were the issues decided multiple times, subsequent determinations would improve on prior ones. This is especially true in the context of land use, where the issues involve primarily questions of fact, and parties have incentives to come forward with all relevant information at the time the first decisionmaker considers the dispute. If a court, rather than a zoning board, were resolving the dispute, res judicata doctrine would circumscribe the power of a subsequent court to depart from the earlier determination. In the first instance, however, zoning disputes are resolved not by the courts, but by local legislatures and administrative bodies. No finality principle comparable to res judicata attaches to legislative determinations, no matter which legislative body-Congress, a state legislature, or a local city council- makes those determinations. Unlike most judicial decisions, which resolve discrete disputes over past events, legislatures act prospectively. Finality rules would preclude legislative decisionmakers from considering new facts that cast doubt on the wisdom of past decisions. It should not be surprising, then, that legislatures are typically free of finality constraints. In contrast to the well-established principles that apply to judicial and legislative determinations, the applicability of finality principles is unclear when it comes to administrative decisions by the local zoning board, such as the grant or denial of a variance. Courts sometimes treat zoning board decisions as if they were judicial decisions, using res judicata language to preclude new applications for relief that the zoning board previously denied. In other cases, courts-often from the same jurisdictions-permit boards to entertain applications virtually identical to previously rejected applications. Although courts sometimes suggest the need to be “flexible” in applying res judicata doctrine to zoning disputes, neither courts nor scholars have offered a coherent prescriptive or descriptive account for how that flexibility does or should operate. This Article has two related objectives: to develop a normative theory explaining how finality principles should apply in the land use context and simultaneously to argue that existing case law, however inarticulately, reflects that normative theory. Part I begins by exploring the distinctive structure of zoning doctrine, which fits imperfectly with traditional categorization of decisions as legislative or judicial. Part II examines more generally the role of finality in legal decisionmaking. Part III demonstrates that, in light of the structure of zoning doctrine, traditional claim preclusion doctrine should have no place in zoning law. This Article argues, by contrast, that issue preclusion doctrine should and does operate to constrain zoning decisionmakers. The Article goes on to demonstrate that this framework explains the results, even if not the language, in the vast majority of zoning cases that raise finality issues.

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