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DEFINITION OF "FAMILY" IN ZONING LAW AND BUILDING CODES An appropriate definition of "family" is basic to density and use prescriptions of zoning laws and to the applicability of building code laws.
This memorandum discusses the definition in the context of such laws. Supreme Court and many state courts, including our New York Court of Appeals, have examined the question of the definition of family, both in enforcement proceedings and in declaratory judgment actions.
Courts have regularly found a legitimate purpose in zoning regulations which are aimed at achieving a homogeneous, traditional single-family neighborhood. To preserve this quiet neighborhood character, many municipalities have enacted definitions of "family" to exclude groups of individuals who, it is perceived, degrade the single family district.
"A quiet place where yards are wide, people few, and motor vehicles restricted are legitimate guidelines in a land-use project addressed to family needs," according to the U. For example, in college towns or resort areas, municipalities are often concerned about fraternities and other groups of unrelated college students living together in crowded conditions in single family areas.
The law concerning the concept of “family” differs for the separate contexts of zoning and building code administration.
It is important for local officials, whether enforcing zoning regulations and building codes in combination or separately, to learn the law applicable to their respective area of responsibility.
Unfortunately, these definitions occasionally exclude persons who should properly be included within the term "family." Both the U. Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals have not hesitated to strike down zoning definitions of "family" which are so narrowly drawn as to exclude certain family members or families which are not biologically related or are non-traditional. S.2d 449 (1974), the New York Court of Appeals held that a group home with ten foster children, headed by the natural parents of two additional children, could together constitute a "family." The Court invalidated a restrictive definition of family limited to blood relatives and spouses, which would have excluded the foster home.
In so doing, the courts, in their opinions, have furnished guideposts which communities can follow in crafting a definition of family which meets constitutional due process requirements. The Court stated: "[A]n ordinance may restrict a residential zone to occupancy by stable families occupying single-family homes, but neither by express provision nor construction may it limit the definition of family to exclude a household ‘which in every but a biological sense is a single family.’" (Id.
Y.2d at 549-550) The Court cited White Plains (supra) for the proposition that a municipality may not seek to achieve its legitimate objectives of preserving the character of single-family neighborhoods by limiting the definition of "family" to exclude a household which in every sense but a biological one is a single family. The town alleged the house was being used in violation of the single family zoning because the residents were transient and not a family.
Such living conditions can cause parking, noise, litter and congestion problems.
Many local governments, therefore, have enacted restrictive definitions of family within their zoning and building codes, and enforce these provisions against groups who do not meet the "family" definition, in an effort to keep out those who would otherwise cause or contribute to unwanted neighborhood impacts.
Generally, they first examine the goal sought to be achieved to see if it furthers a legitimate governmental objective.
They then proceed to scrutinize whether the means designed to reach that end -- in this case a definition of family-- are reasonable. 1, 9, 94 S Ct 1536, 39 L Ed 2d 797 (1974), a case which upheld, as constitutional, a zoning definition of family against a challenge that it violated the equal protection clause.
ZONING Any successful zoning scheme which purports to create and attain a single-family zoning district must contain a definition of family. This line of family definition cases has followed a very traditional path of analysis.