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City of Martinsburg v. The Berkeley County Council

Supreme Court of West Virginia

March 15, 2019

CITY OF MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA, Defendant below, Petitioner
v.
THE BERKELEY COUNTY COUNCIL and THE BERKELEY COUNTY BUILDING COMMISSION Plaintiffs below, Respondents

          Submitted: February 13, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Berkeley County The Honorable Christopher C. Wilkes, Judge Case No. 17-C-461

          Floyd McKinley Sayre, III, Esq. J. Tyler Mayhew, Esq. BOWLES RICE LLP Martinsburg, West Virginia Counsel for Petitioner

          Christopher C. Luttrell, Esq. Luttrell LC Martinsburg, West Virginia Counsel for Respondents

          Jerome Radosh Martinsburg, West Virginia Amicus Curiae Pro Se

          OPINION

          WALKER, CHIEF JUSTICE

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "A circuit court's entry of a declaratory judgment is reviewed de novo." Syllabus Point 3, Cox v. Amick, 195 W.Va. 608');">195 W.Va. 608, 466 S.E.2d 459 (1995).

         2. "In deciding whether a justiciable controversy exists sufficient to confer jurisdiction for purposes of the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act, West Virginia Code §§ 55-13-1 to -16 (1994), a circuit court should consider the following four factors in ascertaining whether a declaratory judgment action should be heard: (1) whether the claim involves uncertain and contingent events that may not occur at all; (2) whether the claim is dependent upon the facts; (3) whether there is adverseness among the parties; and (4) whether the sought after declaration would be of practical assistance in setting the underlying controversy to rest." Syllabus Point 4, Hustead on Behalf of Adkins v. Ashland Oil, Inc., 197 W.Va. 55');">197 W.Va. 55, 475 S.E.2d 55 (1996).

         The Berkeley County Council and the Berkeley County Building Commission (County) filed suit against the City of Martinsburg (City) seeking a ruling that real property owned by the County but located within the City limits is not subject to the City's zoning ordinances. Problematically, the complaint reveals no actual, justiciable controversy. There is no specific project, building or property identified by the County; rather, the suit purports to apply generally and prospectively to all real property owned by the County that may be involved in future but unspecified projects. Under these circumstances, the circuit court engaged in an academic exercise, and its order amounts to an advisory opinion that has little practical use to the parties in the resolution of any dispute that may arise if, and when, a project is undertaken by the County. Lacking a justiciable controversy, the underlying complaint for declaratory relief was insufficient to confer jurisdiction upon the circuit court under the Uniform Declaratory Judgements Act, and the resulting order granting declaratory relief must be vacated.[1]

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The County filed suit in the Circuit Court of Berkeley County against the City seeking declaratory judgment that various properties located within the City limits, but owned by the County, are not subject to the City's zoning ordinances. The complaint lists twelve properties owned by the Berkeley County Council and six properties owned by the Berkeley County Building Commission (collectively, the County Properties). The County Properties include the Berkeley County Court House, the Berkeley County Judicial Center, the Berkeley County Assessor's Office, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, P.O. Faulkner Park, and other public buildings. At oral argument, counsel for the County indicated that, to his knowledge, the complaint lists all of the properties owned by Berkeley County located within the City's limits.

         The County's complaint contended that West Virginia Code §§ 7-3-1, [2] -2, [3] -5, [4] and -7[5] support its position that the County has the specific authority, unrestricted by the Legislature, to purchase property used for courthouses, hospitals, jails and other public buildings, and therefore the County Properties are not subject to city ordinances that may restrict the type or location of those public buildings in the county seat. The County then alleges that the City had previously contended that the County Properties, including those used for a courthouse, hospital, other public building, or jail are subject to its zoning ordinances. Consequently, the County sought a declaratory judgment that the County Properties were not subject to the City of Martinsburg's zoning ordinances.

         The City filed a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment, contending that its authority to enact land use regulations extends to all land within its jurisdiction pursuant to West Virginia Code § 8A-7-1(a)(3), and, that under West Virginia Code § 8A-10-3(a), the enacting body may enjoin "a person or a unit of government" from violating the enacted land use ordinances. A "unit of government" as defined in § 8A includes "any federal, state, regional, county or municipal government or governmental agency."[6] So, the City argues that the Legislature intended that county-owned properties would be subject to city ordinances. That is, the City contends that although Chapter 7, Article 3 of the West Virginia Code empowers a county to acquire property, that property is equally subject to city zoning ordinances under West Virginia Code § 8A-7-1(a)(3). Finally, the City argues that the declaration sought by Berkeley County would, in practice, apply to all county-owned property, not just those designated for a courthouse, jail, or hospital due to the broad "other public buildings" language included in statutes at issue.

         In response, the County reiterates the arguments made in the complaint to the effect that the City's ordinances could not be applied to the County-owned property used for the County's courthouse, hospital, jail or other public buildings consistent with the provisions contained in Chapter 7, Article 3 of the West Virginia Code. The County further argues that West Virginia Code § 8A-7-2, which lists the appropriate subjects for zoning, does not include regulation of government-owned property.

         The circuit court denied the City's motion, and granted summary judgment in favor of the County, agreeing that "the City has no inherent power to adopt a zoning ordinance that affects the properties of governmental entities, and that it is well-established law in West Virginia that the County is afforded the power to purchase or lease real estate for the purpose of constructing or maintaining a courthouse, hospitals, jails, and other public buildings." This appeal followed.

         II.STANDARD OF ...


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