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Oregon Supreme Court: Deference Great To Local Government Land Use Interpretations

The Oregon Supreme Court, in Siporen v. City of Medford, dealt with a statute, ORS 197.829, governing how much discretion LUBA and courts must give when evaluating local government interpretations of their own plans and land use regulations. 

 Although the Oregon Court of Appeals considered this issue at length in 1992, this case represents the first time the Supreme Court has weighed in on these issues.  Appropriately, it was Justice Michael Gillette, with his long career with the Department of Justice and both Oregon appellate courts, who wrote for the Court in what was his last administrative law decision of a distinguished judicial career.

This case arose out of an appeal from a City site plan and architectural review approval for a Wal-Mart store and the City’s decision not to require a detailed transportation impact analysis at that stage.  LUBA construed the City’s code to require such a plan, but the Court of Appeals reversed, finding the City’s interpretation to be “plausible.”  The Supreme Court granted review.

Petitioner-neighbors relying on three sections of the Medford Land Development Code relating to development standards for public improvements, argued that a traffic study was required through a fourth code section which mandated compliance with the “applicable provisions of all city ordinances.”  The City Council found the three sections were not “applicable” in these proceedings, and had always only been applied by the City when considering zone changes.  LUBA agreed with Petitioners that these provisions were “applicable” and remanded.  The Court of Appeals reversed, saying that the test was whether the City’s interpretation as to what criteria were applicable is “plausible” (rather than correct) under previous caselaw.  The Court of Appeals found no directly controlling Medford Code provision, that neither party fully harmonized the code provisions that might provide context supporting one position over another, and that both parties presented plausible interpretations.  Under those circumstances, that court determined the City’s interpretation must be affirmed. 

The Supreme Court agreed that plausible interpretations are entitled to judicial deference regardless of whether the interpretation related to a single term or sought to harmonize apparent conflicts among code provisions.  The Supreme Court saw ORS 197.829 as giving deference to the local governing body interpretation because that body enacted the plan or regulation and presumably has a better understanding than LUBA or the courts over its meaning.  If only one plan or ordinance provision is at issue, the reviewing court must determine whether the local interpretation underpinning its decision is inconsistent with the express language of a plan or regulation provision.  The court then discussed deference in the face of interpreting multiple  and conflicting parts of a code or plan in the face of a charge that the interpretation is “inconsistent with the express language” of that provision.  In such a circumstance, the court said it was the duty of the local government to confront and attempt to harmonize these apparent inconsistencies in its interpretation.  If that interpretation is “plausible,” it must be affirmed unless it is inconsistent with all of the relevant express language or the underlying purposes or policies under consideration. 

In this case, the city governing body determined that certain code provisions that militated towards a full traffic impact analysis were not “applicable” and that only “applicable” provisions of the code need be met in the site and design review process. This is because the governing body’s views on the City’s development process and the responsibilities of various city agencies during that process, as well as its description of the function of that process (i.e., focusing on the site at issue and the streets that border it, as opposed to broader transportation issues which are within the purview of the city planning commission) are paramount.  The Supreme Court found the City’s explanation of this allocation of regulatory responsibilities plausible; thus LUBA and the appellate courts are obliged to affirm that determination. 

This case reconciles ORS 197.829 and the general statutory interpretation standards courts generally use which arguably provide for a more critical review of LUBA decisions by the appellate courts.  The task for local governments in light of Siporen is now to explain their interpretations, for LUBA to review consistency of those interpretations against the express language of a plan or code provision or in the case of harmonizing apparently conflicting plan or code provisions, assuring whether the overall interpretation is plausible, and the appellate courts to determine whether LUBA confined itself to that consistency or plausibility determination.

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