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In ascertaining the reasonable period during which an owner of property must be allowed to continue a nonconforming use, a balance must be found between social harm and private injury.
Cooperage owners began their business in 1924. The surrounding area was zoned for residential use in 1926. However, cooperage owners applied for and received yearly business licenses for a preexisting non-conforming use. City adopted a new zoning ordinance in 1953 which required non-conforming uses to cease after three years. In 1956, city sent cooperage owners a notice to discontinue their business. Cooperage owners brought an article 78 proceeding for an order directing city to issue a wholesale junk license to them. The lower courts sustained cooperage owners. City appealed and argued that the ordinance was a valid exercise of police power.
Under the circumstances, did the lower court err in its decision to direct the city to issue a wholesale junk license to cooperage owners?
Yes. Material triable issues of fact still remained.
The court noted that when zoning ordinances were initially adopted to limit permissible uses of property, or when property was rezoned so as to prevent uses of property previously allowed, a degree of protection was constitutionally required to be given owners of property then using their premises in a manner forbidden by the ordinance. Thus, where substantial expenditures were made in the commencement of the erection of a building, a zoning ordinance may not deprive the owner of the "vested right" to complete the structure. However, where the benefit to the public has been deemed of greater moment than the detriment to the property owner, the continuation of prior nonconforming uses shall be sustained. In this case, the court held that material triable issues of fact remained, and a further hearing should adduce evidence relating to the nature of the surrounding neighborhood, the value and condition of the improvements on the premises, the nearest area to which the cooperage owners might relocate, the cost of such relocation, as well as any other reasonable costs which bear upon the kind and amount of damages which cooperage owners might sustain, and whether cooperage owners might be able to continue operation of their business if not allowed to continue storage of barrels or steel drums outside their frame building. According to the court, it could only be upon such evidence that it may be ascertained whether the resultant injury to cooperage owners would be so substantial that the ordinance would be unconstitutional as applied to the particular facts of the present case.