Texas Supreme Court holds civil penalties allowed under Chapter 54 for all zoning ordinances, not just health and safety ordinances.

CITY OF DALLAS v. TCI WEST END, INC., 13-0795 (Tex. May 8, 2015)

Texas Local Government Code §54.012(3) the authorizes a municipality to pursue a civil action against a property owner to enforce an ordinance “for zoning that provides for the use of land or classifies a parcel of land according to the municipality’s district classification scheme.” The court of appeals held that a municipality cannot pursue a civil action for general zoning violations. Because the court of appeals’ holding is incompatible with the statute’s plain language, the Texas Supreme Court reversed.

The City of Dallas contends that TCI West End, Inc. (“TCI”) demolished a building located in a historic overlay district in violation of a city ordinance.  The City sued TCI for civil penalties under §54.017 of the Texas Local Government Code. Following a jury verdict in favor of the City, TCI appealed and the court of appeals reversed the verdict holding §54.012 and §54.017 apply only to health and safety ordinances, not “general zoning ordinances regulating the use of land.”

The threshold issues for the Court are (1) whether §54.012(3) and §54.017 are limited to enforcement of “health and safety” zoning ordinances; and (2) whether §54.017 requires that actual notice be effected before violation of the applicable ordinance. In support of its holding, the court of appeals cited a Texas Attorney General opinion limiting the statute’s application to health and safety matters.  After analyzing the statutory language, the Supreme Court held “the interpretation of §54.012(3) as incorporating a health-and-safety limitation is contrary to the plain and unambiguous language in the statute and would render meaningless and redundant language in that section expressly circumscribing other categories of ordinances enforceable under subchapter B.”  The Court also held that the perception that conflicts exist between the injunctive relief in subchapter B of Chapter 54 and the relief allowed in Chapter 211 does not mean “the statutes are mutually exclusive merely because they overlap in scope.” The Court also held the court of appeals alternative argument (that no evidence existed of notice before the demolition of the building) fails because §54.017 authorizes civil penalties if a defendant violated an ordinance after receiving notice or if the owner failed to take action necessary for compliance with the ordinance after receiving such notice. The disjunctive “or” notes two separate options to support civil penalties. As a result, the court of appeals opinion is reversed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per Curiam Opinion. The docket page with attorney information is found here.