When a statute provides for an administrative remedy, an aggrieved party must ordinarily exhaust the remedy before utilizing the judicial process. Nevertheless, unless the statute providing for an administrative remedy requires exhaustion by its plain words, an administrative appeal is not mandatory. Absent a statutory mandate, the exhaustion of the administrative remedies doctrine is a matter of judicial discretion. When the issue of exhaustion is discretionary, an appellate court will not conclude that a trial court has abused its discretion unless the trial court applied incorrect legal standards, reached an illogical conclusion, based its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or employed reasoning that causes an injustice to the complaining party. A factor for consideration is whether judicial review would prematurely interrupt the administrative process. In any event, the exhaustion of an administrative remedy is not required when the party seeking judicial review presents questions of law rather than questions of fact.
Appellant property owner, a producer of construction aggregates, acquired a property with proven reserves for mining and quarrying operations. Appellee county later enacted a comprehensive zoning ordinance, limiting the use of the property to agricultural purposes. Before the passage of the ordinance, appellant undertook various activities designed to establish business operations. Appellee issued a stop work order. Appellant, without first receiving a decision from appellee's board of zoning appeals, filed a declaratory judgment action, arguing that the portion of the property not previously subject to zoning qualified as a preexisting nonconforming use, protected by Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-208 (1992) (amended). The trial court ruled that the business activities on the property were entitled to grandfather protection under § 13-7-208. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment. On appellant’s appeal, the state supreme court reversed the appellate court and reinstated the trial court’s judgment.
Was appellant property owner required to exhaust administrative remedies by appealing with appellee county's board of zoning appeals under Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 13-7-108 and 13-7-109 prior to filing the declaratory judgment action?
Appellant property owner presented a challenge to the applicability of the zoning ordinance rather than to the discretion of the zoning official who issued the stop work order. The complaint required an assessment of whether appellant invoked the protections of Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-208 (1992) (amended). The applicability of the ordinance to appellant’s operations presented a question of law and, therefore, did not require the exhaustion of administrative remedies.