E, Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co.,
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall
Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co.,
272 U.S. 365 (1926), argued 27 Jan. 1926, reargued 12 Oct. 1926, decided 22 Nov. 1926 by vote of 6 to 3; Sutherland for the Court, Van Devanter, McReynolds, and Butler in dissent. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, many municipalities, including Euclid, Ohio, enacted comprehensive *zoning schemes. These zoning ordinances were challenged on various constitutional grounds, and *state courts disagreed as to their constitutionality. The zoning ordinance enacted by the Euclid village council is noteworthy because litigation over its validity reached the Supreme Court. In Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., the justices concluded that zoning was a constitutional exercise of the *police power, thereby laying the foundation for virtually universal implementation of this form of land use regulation.
In 1922, Euclid was a community of fewer than ten thousand citizens located in the Cleveland metropolitan area and in the path of urban expansion. The village council adopted a comprehensive zoning ordinance dividing the town into use districts, area districts, and height districts. These districts or zones overlapped, so that development of each parcel of land in the community was restricted as to use, area, and height. The use limitations, the controversial feature of the ordinance, were cumulative in nature. With a few minor exceptions, single-family dwellings were the only structures permitted in the most restrictive use zone (U-1). Progressively more intensive uses were permitted in five other use zones (U-2 through U-6), with virtually all types of residential, commercial, and manufacturing use permitted in the least restrictive zone (U-6).
Ambler Realty Co. owned a large, unimproved tract of land in Euclid. It apparently was holding this sixty-eight-acre parcel for investment, planning to sell it for industrial development. A considerable portion of the property was zoned U6 and thus could be used for industrial purposes. (p. 303) However, the rest of the property was zoned U-2 or U-3, thereby being significantly restricted and substantially reduced in value.
Ambler Realty Co. filed suit in federal district court challenging the validity of the Euclid zoning ordinance on *due process, *equal protection, and *taking grounds. The court ruled in favor of the landowner, finding that its property had been taken without *just compensation, and granted an *injunction prohibiting the village from enforcing the ordinance.
The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, sustaining the constitutionality of zoning as a means of regulating private land use. The Court initially noted that zoning only could be justified as an exercise of the *police power to promote the public welfare. Drawing an analogy to nuisance law, the Court concluded that a zoning arrangement must be viewed in a given context. The Court focused on the prohibitory aspects of the Euclid ordinance, particularly the exclusion of commercial enterprises and apartment buildings from certain residential zones, and found a rational relationship between these restrictions and the health, safety, and *general welfare of the citizens of the municipality. It noted a number of factors that established this nexus, including the minimization of traffic hazards and the reduction of noise. The Court stressed that it was upholding the zoning ordinance in its “general scope.” It, however, recognized the possibility that an ordinance might be unconstitutional as applied to a specific parcel.
The Euclid decision established the legal foundation for zoning. Over time, local governments throughout the country employed this system of land-use control with, of course, numerous variations. Nevertheless, as anticipated in Euclid, landowners soon attacked zoning ordinances as they applied to particular parcels. One such case reached the Supreme Court shortly after Euclid. In Nectow v. City of Cambridge (1928), the Court ruled in favor of the landowner, holding that application of the zoning ordinance to the parcel greatly reduced the land’s value without enhancing the public welfare.
Having established the constitutionality of comprehensive zoning and demonstrated that a zoning ordinance valid in its general terms might be unconstitutional in application, the Supreme Court essentially withdrew from the zoning scene, leaving subsequent battles to be fought primarily in state courts. Since 1970, however, the Court has reentered the picture and rendered numerous decisions regarding various land use regulation techniques. Nonetheless, the Court has shown no inclination to reconsider its landmark decision in Euclid.
See also property rights.
Daniel R. Mandelker, Land Use Law, 2d ed. (1988; supp., 1991).
Jon W. Bruce