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Anthony v. Mason County

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

December 11, 2014

MASON COUNTY, et al., Defendants.



Plaintiff William Anthony (hereinafter, "Anthony") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, alleging that Mason County along with several defendants in the Mason County Department of Community Development (hereinafter, "the Department") violated his Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection rights by arbitrarily denying his building permit applications over a period of years. (Doc. No. 27). Defendants Rebecca Hersha and Grace Miller, the development planners who processed his applications, are being sued in their individual capacity only. ( Id. ). Defendant Barbara Adkins, the Department Director, is being sued in both her individual and official capacities. ( Id. ). Anthony also alleges that Defendant Mason County violated the Washington Public Records Act, 42.56 RCW, by failing to give him certain documents. (Doc. No. 27). Defendants now move for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 33). Anthony opposes the motion. (Doc. No. 34). After reviewing the briefs and all other relevant material properly before the Court, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Court's reasoning follows:


A. Abandonment of First Permit

In 2004, Anthony applied for a permit to build a detached garage and art studio ("the garage") on his lakefront lot at 1951 Mason Lake Drive E, Grapeview, Washington (the "lot"). (Doc. No. 33 at 3). Anthony's lot is an irregular "flag shape" with a different width, when measured from East to West, in each section of the property: the north section of the property is roughly 98 feet wide; the "middle section" of the property is roughly 70-80 feet wide; and the south section of the property is roughly 25 feet wide. (Doc. No. 35, Ex. B, at 2-3).

Anthony's lot is zoned "Rural Residential 5." Under the Mason County Code, a "Rural Residential 5" lot is subject to a "setback" requirement of 20 feet, i.e., any new structure must be at least 20 feet away from the ends of the property. (Doc. No. 33 at 2). The proposal Anthony submitted to the Department placed the garage in the southwestern corner of the middle section, with an eight-foot setback from the western edge of the property and a five-foot setback from the southern edge of the property. (Doc. No. 34 at 3). Since the setbacks were less than 20 feet, Anthony requested an administrative variance. ( Id. ). The Department granted the requested variance. (Doc. No. 34 at 2). However, Anthony chose not to use the permit; the permit expired in 2006. (Doc. No. 27 at 5-7).

B. Denial of Second Permit Application

On April 28, 2008, Anthony submitted a second permit application for the same garage. (Doc. No. 34 at 4). His proposal contained the same setbacks of eight and five feet. ( Id. ).

Defendant Rebecca Hersha, a planner in the Department, handled the application. (Doc. No. 34 at 4). During the review process, Anthony's neighbors, the Coopers, complained to Hersha that the garage would obstruct their view of the lake. ( Id. ). Hersha denied Anthony's administrative variance request, finding that the application was "not a reasonable development proposal" because the garage was too large. ( Id.; Doc. No. 34, Ex. F).

Anthony appealed the variance denial to the Hearing Examiner. (Doc. No. 34 at 5). A hearing was held in January 2009. ( Id. ). During the hearing, the Coopers, along with nine other neighbors, testified that Anthony's garage would block their view of the lake and diminish property values. (Doc. No. 35, Ex. G). The Hearing Officer found that the Department erred in rejecting the variance based on the size of the garage. (Doc. No. 35, Ex. H., at 5:22-23). However, the Hearing Officer upheld the denial of the variance on the grounds that the garage would negatively impact views and property values in the area. ( Id. at 6:1-3)("The view impacts would be significant and severe.").

Anthony appealed the Hearing Examiner's decision to the Mason County Superior Court; the Superior Court affirmed the decision. See Mason County Sup.Ct. Case No. 09-20069-3. Plaintiff then appealed the Superior Court decision to the Washington State Court of Appeals. (Doc. No. 33 at 5). The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed, holding that the effects on the Coopers' view and property value were "certainly reasonable considerations" in determining whether a variance should be granted. Anthony v. Mason County, 158 Wn.App. 1052 (2010). Anthony petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review; the petition was denied in March 2011. Anthony v. Mason County, 171 Wn.2d 1013 (2011).

C. Withdrawal of Third Permit

Anthony submitted a third permit application in March 2012. This proposal included eight-foot setbacks on both the southern and western property lines. (Doc. No. 34 at 6). On April 9, 2012, Anthony submitted a variance request, which Hersha handled. ( Id. ).

Anthony asserts that Hersha's Staff Report mentioned, for the first time, that the Mason County Code provided an exception to the 20-foot setback requirement. If the lot width is less than 100 feet wide, the length of the setback need only be equal to 10% of the lot width. ( Id. ).[1] However, Hersha did not explain why this exception did not apply to Anthony's lot, nor does it state the lot width at the relevant point.

According to Anthony, Hersha also "reached out to a known development" activist named John Diehl about Anthony's application and shared her Staff Report with him. (Doc. No. 34 at 6). Diehl and several other neighbors testified in opposition to Anthony's request during a variance hearing held on July 20, 2012. ( Id. ). Anthony withdrew his permit request before any ruling was issued. (Doc. No. 35, Ex. J).

D. Initial Denial of Fourth Permit Application

Anthony submitted his fourth permit application on July 24, 2012. This application included setbacks of ten feet. (Doc. No. 34 at 8). According to Anthony, he did not request a variance because the lot width was less than 100 feet and, therefore, he was entitled to the setback exception. ( Id. ).

On August 2, 2012, Hersha, who was handling this new application, informed Anthony that she would deny his application. (Doc. No. 35, Ex. L). According to Hersha, Anthony was not entitled to the exception because the lot width was over 100 feet. ( Id. ). Anthony asked Hersha's supervisor, Defendant Barbara Adkins, to assign the case to someone else. (Doc. No. 34 at 8). Adkins assigned the application to Defendant Grace Miller. ( Id. ). Miller found that Anthony was not entitled to the exception because the lot width was more than 100 feet. ( Id. ). In arriving at her decision, Miller had measured the lot width for the setback on the southern side perpendicularly with respect to the abutting property. (Doc. No. 35, Ex. R, at 8:19-21).

Anthony appealed the decision to the Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner ruled that Miller used the wrong method for determining lot width. (Doc. No. 35, Ex. Q, at 8:19-21). According to the Hearing Examiner, the Mason County Code "clear[ly] and unambiguous[ly]" incorporated the method for measuring lot width set forth in The New Illustrative Book of Development Definitions, (hereinafter, Moskowitz ) which provides that lot width is measured in a parallel orientation with respect to the street not, as Milller had measured it, perpendicular to the abutting property. ( Id. ). Applying this method to the lot, the Hearing Examiner found that the lot ...

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