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Alabama Supreme Court Delivers Decision on Disputed Subdivision Case

In a recent opinion, the Supreme Court of Alabama held that if a preliminary subdivision platcomplies with all the City's subdivision regulations, then it cannot be denied approval for vague or unspecified reasons. T Investments, LLC, and FHM Company, LLLP v. City of Montgomery Planning Commission and City of Montgomery, SC-2023-0017 (Ala. December 8, 2023).

FHM Company, LLP, the owner of an 85-acre parcel, purchased it with the intention of development in line with the property’s zoning designation. They engaged T Investments, LLC for the development. Together they submitted a preliminary plat to the City of Montgomery's Planning Commission in the fall of 2021. This submission was previously approved by the city's five reviewing departments to guarantee compliance with Montgomery's zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations.

At a meeting on November 18, 2021, the Planning Commission unanimously voted 9-0 to reject the plaintiff's preliminary plat for “safety reasons,” “drainage,” and failure to conform to the 2002 preliminary plat. The minutes from the meeting evidence that several residents voiced opposition to the plat for those reasons. 

FHM and T Investments petitioned the Circuit Court of Montgomery County for a writ of mandamus directing the Planning Commission to approve the plat and arguing the Commission exceeded its authority. The Circuit Court upheld the Planning Commission’s decision holding that while “drainage” and “failure to conform to the [2002] preliminary plat” were insufficient grounds for denial, “safety reasons” was sufficient.  

FHM and T Investments appealed to the Supreme Court of Alabama. It decided in favor of the applicants. In its opinion, the Court explained that Alabama's subdivision-control laws providespecific constraints on how planning commissions can review subdivision applications. Specifically, planning commissions are obligated to approve preliminary plats if they meet all municipal regulations. If a plat meets these regulations, but is still denied, the commission must provide reasons for the denial.  The reasons must be (1) valid and (2) sufficiently clear, indicating where the plan did not meet regulatory standards. The Court held that "safety reasons" were insufficient. The reason did not provide a specific basis for the plat’s denial and failed tooffer any indication of how FHM and T Investments could modify their application to alleviate the Commission’s concerns. Therefore, the Commission failed to demonstrate how FHM and T Investments did not comply with Montgomery's subdivision regulations.

This case establishes a precedent for municipalities to strictly follow legal guidelines in executing their statutory responsibilities. While zoning decisions remain highly subjective, the Alabama Supreme Court has decisively sided with property owners and developers by setting a clear standard for preliminary plat approvals. Planning Commissions should take heed: adhere strictly to Alabama's statutes in reviewing and approving subdivision cases or face costly litigation and a correction from the state's highest court.

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