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Is it correct that the Township’s zoning board of appeals can decide the meaning of a provision in the Township zoning ordinance?

Yes! Many townships consider the Zoning Board of Appeals to primarily handle variances. Variances are an individual’s request to ask for flexibility in the township’s strict application of the zoning ordinance so that a certain use can commence or structure can be constructed that would otherwise violate the zoning ordinance. A ZBA’s sole purpose, however, is not only to review and decide upon variance requests. See MCL 125.3606; MCL 125.3604. In fact, townships will often benefit from using their ZBA’s other statutory prescribed powers, including the power to hear appeals related to decisions of the Township zoning administrator and certain planning commission decisions, and interpretations of the Township zoning ordinance. The ZBA’s interpretation of the Township zoning ordinance authorizes the ZBA to hear and decide the meaning of a defined and undefined term or phrase of the ordinance. This is often helpful when an applicant/property owner, zoning administrator, or planning commission seeks clarification on the meaning of one or more sections of a zoning ordinance to carry out further actions and duties under the ordinance. Certainly, one option is to amend the zoning ordinance to draft the provision under review to be unambiguous, but that is not always possible. Use of the ZBA’s interpretative power can be an economic and efficient process as not all provisions require a zoning ordinance amendment. For example, ambiguity may arise from applying a provision of the zoning ordinance to a new, unique circumstance that has not been previously present. Although a zoning ordinance amendment would clarify the process, an entire rewrite of any applicable provisions is not necessary to answer the question raised. Instead, the ZBA can decide how the provision or provisions of the zoning ordinance were intended to apply in that particular circumstance. This can routinely occur with undefined terms or words used within a zoning ordinance. The common, plain meaning may not be as readily ascertainable because there are differing meanings depending on context (which just may be unique in the instance presented). The ZBA, with proper notice published (and potentially mailed notice depending on the circumstances), can explain how that undefined term applies and should be defined in the given context. In this capacity, the ZBA provides clarity for the body or official applying the provision, which removes a potential error or concern that body or official may have when administering that portion of the zoning ordinance to grant or deny a zoning request under the zoning ordinance. The ZBA can also make such interpretations in a timelier fashion than amending the zoning ordinance. Thus, do not forget about the ZBA’s various powers—including the power to interpret terms and phrases within the zoning ordinance.

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