An Indiana court ruled that a county zoning board acted properly in denying a landowner’s application for a zoning variance allowing him to operate a shooting range on his property due in part to the offensive noise it would cause to a nearby church.
A landowner (the “plaintiff”) owned property in a low-density residential (“R-2”) zoning district. The land around the plaintiff’s property contains single-family dwellings, farmland, woods, a museum, and a church.
The plaintiff wished to establish and operate a shooting range on his property, which was to consist of an indoor classroom and an outdoor shooting range. The property was not zoned for this type of use.
In 2019, he petitioned the County Advisory Board of Zoning Appeals (the “board”) for a special zoning variance. After a hearing, the board denied the plaintiff’s petition for a variance, and a trial court denied his petition for judicial review.
The board’s criteria for evaluating an exception
The plaintiff claimed that the board and trial court erred in failing to evaluate the board’s denial of his petition in light of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.
The county zoning ordinance (the ”ordinance”) defines a special variance or exception as a “use designated as being permitted within a district provided it complies with all development standards of that district and satisfies the criteria, which the Board of Zoning Appeals utilizes when reviewing the application for special exception approval.” Section 501(B) details those criteria and provides as follows:
A proposed exception or use can only be granted by the board upon an affirmative finding on the following criteria:
The proposed exception or use will not be injurious to, or alter the normal and orderly development of, permitted uses of property within the general Vicinity;
The proposed exception or use is serviced by adequate access roads, ingress and egress points, and traffic flow and control mechanisms;
The establishment, maintenance, or operation of the proposed exception or use will not be injurious to the public health, safety, or general welfare; and
The proposed exception or use is not inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
Petition and letters opposing the variance
On February 25, 2020, the board held a meeting at which it addressed the shooting range. Prior to the hearing, the County Department of Community Development issued a staff report that was in favor of approving the plaintiff’s request.
However, a petition opposing the special variance was signed by 93 persons identified as “citizens of the area impacted by the application.”
Moreover, the pastor of a nearby church wrote a letter expressing his concerns that his church would likely be located in the direction of the shooting range. He said the noise from the range would be disruptive to church events and ministry programs to the point that church members would be deterred from hosting or attending events at the church.
Finally, the board received letters from 16 nearby landowners opposed to the range. The letters expressed concerns about noise, safety, and property values. Separately, 5 persons spoke in favor of the range.
After the board voted to deny the plaintiff’s request, he petitioned for judicial review of the board’s decision.
On March 4, 2021, the trial court denied the plaintiff’s petition for judicial review, concluding, in part, as follows:
There is additional evidence in the Record indicating that Petitioner’s proposed shooting range would be operating in the direction of a neighbor’s home located approximately 600 feet away and in the direction of a local church. There is substantial evidence supporting the Board’s finding that operation of a commercial shooting range in a populated residential area presents legitimate threats to public safety and general welfare.
The trial court added:
At the very least, we conclude that the Board did not abuse its discretion in determining that [the plaintiff] had failed to prove that the proposed exception or use would not be injurious to, or alter the normal and orderly development of, permitted uses of property within the general vicinity. . . .
Several neighbors submitted written statements for and against Plaintiff’s request. . . .
[The pastor] expressed his concern that the church would likely be located in the direction of the shooting range. . . and that the noise from the range would be disruptive to church events and ministry programs to the point that church members would be deterred from hosting or attending events at the church.
What this means for churches
Church leaders should be alert to zoning developments in their immediate vicinity and be prepared to attend zoning board hearings to voice dissent to actions that would negatively impact the use and enjoyment of church property. A failure to do so may compromise a church’s right to dissent in the future.
Churches should also be aware of how their own activities could constitute a nuisance. For example, a church that conducts lengthy revival meetings with shouting and singing could be found guilty of permitting a nuisance.
On the other hand, there have been cases where the court determined that the playing of church bells did not constitute a nuisance—despite complaints from neighbors. For more on this topic, see the “Nuisance” section in the Legal Library.
Michaels v. Huntington County, 176 N.E.3d 585 (Ind. App. 2021)