Wednesday, March 7, 2007
The doctrine of standing, which restricts WHO is able to sue over an alleged violation of law, is one of the most contentious issues in citizen enforcement of land use laws. In the environmental field, it is almost literally true that if there is no one in the forest to hear a tree fall, no one has standing to sue the person who chopped down the tree. Simply “caring about” the forest isn’t good enough.
Disputes over local standing are currently playing out in the city of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted in 2004 a law that limits to “aggrieved persons” who have been “detrimentally harmed” the standing to challenge in court Philadelphia zoning board decisions. This Philadelphia Inquirer article discusses two pending cases.
First, does a citizen have the right to challenge a variance to allow a billboard? Or is this akin to allowing anyone to sue, which goes against the grain of allowing only persons with “particularized” injury (in other words, not just a taxpayer) to sue? Second, can a variance to allow a two-family house on a small lot be challenged by someone who isn’t a neighbor?
My view of the doctrine is that it should broadly grant standing to any person who can show that he or she has been harmed. Courts should also give a broad view of the purpose of laws. Presumably, the purpose of laws restricting billboards is aesthetics, as well as avoiding traffic distractions. Thus, anyone who has been annoyed by the ugliness of a billboard should be able to sue. What’s the purpose of a maximum-size law for residential lots? Presumably it is to protect the immediately adjacent neighbors from unwanted bulk next door. But if a citizen who lived two blocks away can show that another reason for such a law is to limit “traffic” (often a bogus justification for all kinds of NIMBY arguments, but an ostensible justification, nonetheless), then this citizen too should have standing. One’s view of the merits shouldn’t affect one’s view of the scope of the law of standing. And I think that citizen suits are one of the finest features of the American legal system, no matter how much I may dislike NIMBY.
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