Anderson v. City of Issaquah
851 P.2d 744 (1993)

  • Anderson owned some land in Issaquah that was zoned for commercial use. He wanted to build some retail stores. He applied for a permit from the Issaquah Development Commission. They rejected his designs.
    • They rejected the designs on the basis that they didn’t fit with the “character of Issaquah.” Aka, the building looked like an ugly warehouse.
  • Anderson made several changes to the design, but the Commission rejected him again. He tried a third time, and a fourth, but he was still rejected.
    • The Commission did not give Anderson specific guidance on what needed to be done in order to get approved. They only said that the building didn’t look like they wanted it to look. They made some vague suggestions for which building materials to use, but felt it was Anderson’s responsibility to come up with a design they liked, it wasn’t their responsibility to design Anderson’s building for him.
    • Anderson spent $250k trying to design something the Commission would accept.
  • Anderson appealed to the Issaquah City Council, but they rejected his appeal. Anderson sued.
    • Anderson argued that the building design requirements contained in the Issaquah Municipal Code were unconstitutionally vague.
  • The Trial Court found for Issaquah. Anderson appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed and ordered Issaquah to issue Anderson a building certificate.
    • The Appellate Court found that the requirements did not give “effective or meaningful guidance.” In other words, the requirements were too subjective.
      • The code said things like buildings had to be “harmonious” and that “monotony should be avoided.”
      • Many of the words used in the code did not have settled common law meanings, and were not technical words commonly understood in the building design industry.
    • The Court found that the Issaquah Building Code was “the very epitome of discretionary, arbitrary, enforcements of the law.” And that’s unconstitutional.
      • Aesthetic considerations are not impossible to define in a code or ordinance, but you’d have to do a better job than was done here.
    • Anderson had also argued that Issaquah has no power to deny a building permit for aesthetic reasons alone. However, the Appellate Court rejected this argument.
  • Considering that Anderson spent $250k trying to figure out how to get a permit, it could be said that when zoning laws are too vague, it actually discourages people moving into an area because they can’t be sure they’ll get a permit. That decreases economic activity in the area, which is the opposite of what zoning laws are supposed to achieve.