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Zoning Cases in the News

All over the United States there are laws that prohibit junkyards in residential areas and other laws that allow junkyards as long as they are licensed. These zoning laws can create inconsistent outcomes.

A property owner in Maine had a huge mass of used materials in his yard, including loose boards, barrels, truck bodies, wheels, pipes, tanks, buckets, iron, several vehicles, wheelbarrows, and tires, as well as a bunch of "unidentifiable" stuff. The vehicles were not registered and they didn't run. The town sued him for violating a state law against having an unlicensed junkyard as well as an unlicensed automobile graveyard. Everyone, including the landowner himself, agreed that yard was "messy," but the landlord took issue with the "junkyard" label. According to the law, a junkyard contained discarded, worn and junked materials. The landowner argued that he had every intention of using every item, so it wasn't really junk. The judge disagreed, and ordered him to clean up his yard and to pay a fine.

In an earlier case in Pennsylvania, a homeowner was ordered to pay a large fine for operating a junkyard without a license in violation of a township ordinance. The landowner sued the township, arguing that the junkyard licensing law was unconstitutional. The judge agreed. The licensing law said that the township could consider several factors in deciding whether or not to grant the license. One of the factors was the "aesthetic" impact on the township. But the statute didn't specify exactly how the aesthetic impact would be measured-it was too vague. It encouraged the township to issue junkyard licenses in an erratic manner. So, it just wouldn't be fair to deny a person a license on the basis of aesthetics.

Fair enough, said a Nebraska court. In a third case, the state sued a man who had collected vehicles on his property for nearly twenty years. Photographs presented at trial showed farm equipment, military vehicles, wagons, and trucks totaling in the hundreds. They were in various states of repair, and some he kept for display as a makeshift museum. The state accused him of violating the junkyard licensing statute. The judges on the court studied the statute. It was passed, in part, to preserve the natural beauty of Nebraska. Then, the judges on the court studied the landowner's stuff and determined that he did not maintain "wrecked," "ruined" or "scrapped" vehicles, although many of the vehicles were "dismantled." But, the vehicles on his property fit the definition of "junk," which included "wrecked automobiles" or those that were no longer intended to be used on the road. So, he did have a bunch of junk. He must be in violation of the statute because he didn't have a license.

But the owner argued that he wasn't required to obtain a junkyard license, because he had been running a junkyard since before the statute was enacted. How much junk creates a junkyard? Since the statute was enacted in part to preserve the natural beauty, the court said that even one junked vehicle would constitute a junkyard for which a license would be required. The photographs showed that the owner in this case had collected at least four junked vehicles in his yard since before the law was enacted. Therefore, his property was a junkyard long before the statute was enacted, so the new statute didn't apply to him. He was allowed to continue to use his property as he had all along, as a junkyard and museum.

Perhaps it just goes to show that one person's junk is another person's treasure.

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