The state’s second highest court last week ruled against Matthews in its attempts to shut down MNC Holding’s medical waste incineration facility in the town. In 2009, the state adopted new air quality standards that would go into effect in 2014. Matthews got the Mecklenburg County Air Quality Division to move up the date for MNC to October 2012. The company sought a variance from the town to make the necessary changes to the facility — a variance being necessary as the incinerator’s is a “nonconforming use” for its current zoning — but its request was denied by the town. MNC then sued.
Matthews’ zoning ordinance states that:
No structural alterations are allowed to any structure containing a nonconforming use except for those required by law or an order from the office or agent authorized by the Board of Commissioners to issue building permits to ensure the safety of the structure.
The town took this to mean that the only changes allowed would those that needed to to ensure the safety of the structure — and as air quality regulations have nothing to do with the safety of the structure, MNC should not be allowed to make the necessary changes to comply with the new regulations.
The Court of Appeals was not impressed by this argument. As Judge Robert N. Hunter, Jr. wrote for the appeals court:
The intent of the statute is to allow property owners to make alterations when such alterations are “required by law.” In our legal system, town ordinances must defer to state and federal laws. The fact that the Town enacted the Ordinance recognizes this fact. Further, “[z]oning ordinances are in derogation of the right of private property, and, where exemptions appear in favor of the property owner, they should be liberally construed in favor of such owner.” Our Supreme Court has observed that this is especially true when property owners are required by law to make alterations to their property.
Accordingly, because MNC is compelled by law to make the alteration, the Ordinance should be interpreted liberally. The provision of the Ordinance allowing for alterations “required by law” was placed there by the legislators specifically for the purpose of “provid[ing] flexibility and ‘prevent[ing] practical difficulties and unnecessary hardships.’” Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s reversal of the zoning board.