Legislative v Quasi-Judicial Land Use Decisions

Most planning and zoning decisions made by local zoning boards, commissions, and elected officials fall into one of two categories: legislative decisions or quasi-judicial decisions. The basic difference between the two categories is that legislative decisions establish policies for future application, while quasi-judicial, or administrative decisions are the application of those policies.

Legislative zoning decisions have widespread impact. The policy choices that are made during the development of a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances affect all citizens. Public participation is encouraged for this reason. Examples of legislative decisions — those that establish policies — include the: adoption of plans, adoption of ordinances (or amendments to ordinances), and passing budgets. All legislative decisions are made by the local government’s elected body, but not every decision made by the elected body is a legislative decision.

Quasi-judicial decisions are, “localized in its application, affecting a particular group of citizens more acutely than the public at large.” (Sutton id). Examples of quasi-judicial decisions include decisions on: variances, special exceptions, subdivision plats, zoning code violations, site-specific rezoning to PUD, site plan review and the decisions of a board of adjustment, and many decisions of a planning commission.

One court has described quasi-judicial decisions in this way:

  1. The action occurs in response to a landowner application followed by a statutorily mandated public hearing;
  2. as a result of the application, readily identifiable proponents and opponents weigh in on the process; and
  3. the decision is localized in its application affecting a particular group of citizens more acutely than the public at large

The distinction between legislative and quasi-judicial decision-making in zoning practice is an important one. In quasi-judicial proceedings the decision-making body must follow stricter procedural requirements (The term “quasi-judicial” literally means court-like; implying that proceedings must be similar to those followed in court proceedings). If the requirements are not followed, a court could invalidate the decision if it is challenged. All actions taken by the board of adjustment are quasi-judicial.

Quasi-judicial proceedings must follow basic standards of due process, including:

  • Proper notice of the hearing
  • Providing everyone with an interest in the proceedings an opportunity to be heard and to hear what others have to say
  • Full disclosure to everyone of the facts being considered by the decision-making body (i.e., no ex parte contacts)
  • An impartial decision-maker free from bias and conflicts of interest
  • Decisions based on the facts of the case, not on political pressure or vocal opposition.

Planning commission hearing that are held before an advisory committee do not fall in either category because they are only advisory, there is no final decision made. Public input meetings and work sessions, such as town hall meetings and design charrettes, are discretionary (not mandated) informal meetings and are not held to the same legal standards as legislative and quasi-judicial gathering