Stagecoach Trails MHC, LLC v. Benson – 7/19/2013

August 1, 2013

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two Holds that a Mobile Home Park in its Entirety is Entitled to Non-Conforming-Use Status Under A.R.S. § 9-462.02(A).

In 1998, the City of Benson (“Benson”) amended its zoning regulations to increase the setback and minimum-size requirements for spaces within Benson mobile-home parks.  In late 2009, Benson notified mobile-home park operators, including Stagecoach Trails MHC, LLC (“Stagecoach”), that it would begin applying the amended regulations when individual homes were replaced.

In January 2010, Benson denied Stagecoach’s application for a permit to install a new and larger mobile home on one of its spaces.  Stagecoach appealed the permit denial to the Benson Board of Adjustment (the “Board”), arguing that the entire park is a non-conforming use and that it was therefore entitled to replace individual homes without relinquishing non-confirming-use status.  The Board rejected this argument and Stagecoach filed a special-action in superior court.  The superior court held an evidentiary hearing, after which it reversed the Board’s ruling and ordered Benson to issue a permit for the mobile home. 

Benson appealed and the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, concluding that Stagecoach had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies.  The Arizona Supreme Court granted review and vacated the Court of Appeals’ decision.  The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to consider whether a mobile-home park as a whole, or an individual space within the park, is properly considered a non-conforming use.

In Arizona, when a use of property predates the adoption of a zoning regulation prohibiting it, such use is known as a legal non-confirming use and is entitled to certain constitutional and statutory protections.  Under A.R.S. § 9-462.02(A), a zoning regulation may not be applied retroactively to extinguish a preexisting use of property “for the purposes used at the time the ordinance or regulation takes effect”; nor may a regulation affect the owner’s right to make “any reasonable repairs or alterations in buildings or property used for such existing purpose,” unless the municipality purchases or condemns the property.  An “alteration” does not include the complete replacement of a nonconforming use or a major component of such use.  Replacement of various components of a nonconforming use, however, is permissible and does not extinguish the permitted status of a nonconforming use.

In this case, the Court of Appeals agreed with Stagecoach that the protected use was the mobile-home park rather than the individual space.  The Court concluded that Stagecoach had a vested right to continue the use of the entire park as it existed before it became nonconforming because the legislature had clearly intended that a mobile-home park should be treated as a unified use.  The Court also concluded that replacing one mobile home with another was a reasonable alteration permitted under law.  The Court was unable, however, to determine whether the new mobile home complied with the regulations that existed at the time the park was approved because the trial court had not made a finding as to when the park was approved.   The Court remanded the case to the superior court to determine which version of the Benson zoning regulations existed at the time Stagecoach was approved and whether the mobile home at issue complied with those regulations.

Judge Espinosa authored the opinion; Judges Vasquez and Kelly concurred.