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Antioch Community Church v. Board of Zoning Adjustment of City of Kansas City

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

April 3, 2018




         Antioch Community Church appeals the decision of the Board of Zoning Adjustment of the City of Kansas City, Missouri, (BZA) denying the Church a nonuse zoning variance for a digital display on a sign it erected in front of the church building. This Court agrees the BZA erred in concluding it had no authority to grant the Church's requested variance. Contrary to its conclusion that the addition of digital lettering meant the sign no longer qualified as a monument sign as required under the Kansas City zoning and development code, this Court holds the sign remained a monument sign; it simply became a monument sign with digital lettering. The BZA, therefore, had authority to grant a variance if the other requirements for a variance were met. But this Court affirms because the record supports the BZA's decision that the Church did not show "practical difficulties" in operating without the variance.


         Antioch Community Church is located in the northern part of Kansas City, Missouri, on Antioch Road. Traffic is heavy on Antioch Road, a major thoroughfare with almost 14, 000 vehicles passing by the Church daily. While other parts of Antioch Road are commercially developed, the church building is situated on a one-mile stretch of Antioch Road passing through a residential area zoned for single-family homes. The church building is immediately surrounded by single-family homes in all directions and, when standing on the church lot, one can see only single-family homes. But commercially zoned areas, including stores and gas stations, are located approximately half of a mile to both the north and south of the Church.

         More than 60 years ago, the Church placed a brick "monument" sign with a 36" x 42" manual display in front of the church building and perpendicular to Antioch Road. Like similar monument signs in front of churches everywhere, the sign was used to display messages about such matters as the name of the pastor and the time for Sunday services. The sign worked by opening the glass front and forming the message by hanging changeable individual letters on rows of cup hooks behind the glass.

         In 2010, using $11, 426 from the bequest of a church member, the Church upgraded its monument sign to include a digital display in place of the individual removable hanging letters. The Church says this allowed it to increase the number of messages it could display while simultaneously making the messages easier and safer for motorists to view. This also allowed the church members to change the messages electronically from inside the church building, without the need for someone to go outside, open up the sign window, and replace the changeable lettering by hand. The Church credits the digital display for attracting several new members.

         The Church sought neither a permit nor a variance prior to its 2010 installation of the digital lettering on its monument sign. While Kansas City's zoning and development code permits institutions (such as schools and churches) located in residential areas to have monument signs, until 2015 institutions in residential zones could have only "[o]ne monument sign per street frontage which … may include changeable copy, but the changeable copy feature must use direct human intervention for changes and may not include any form of digital or electronic display." Kansas City, Mo., Zoning and Development Code § 88-445-06-A-4 (2011).[1] Beginning in 2015, an exception was adopted for institutions located on property of more than 10 to 15 acres, [2] but the Church's property was too small to qualify under this provision. Kansas City, Mo., Zoning and Development Code § 88-445-11-B(2) (2015).

         Approximately one year after the Church added the digital display to its monument sign, Kansas City issued a citation to the Church for violating section 88-445-06-A-4(a). The Church appealed the citation to the BZA, but before the appeal could be heard, the Church filed an application with the BZA for a variance "to allow [a] digital display on [the] existing monument sign." The Church relied in part on section 88-445-12 of the zoning code, which provides, in relevant part, that the BZA "may grant variances to the requirements for signs, except as to type and number." Id. (emphasis added).

         After a public hearing, the BZA rejected the Church's request for a variance because it determined the addition of a digital display would change the "type" of sign from a monument sign to a digital sign in violation of section 88-445-12 of the zoning code. The BZA also said it denied the variance because it found even if the addition of a digital display did not change the sign "type, " the Church "failed to establish [the] undue hardship or practical difficulty" necessary for granting a variance.[3]

         The BZA had put the Church's appeal of the citation for violating the sign ordinance on hold while the variance request was being considered, as the parties agreed granting the variance would have mooted the citation. Once the variance was denied, the BZA held a hearing on the Church's appeal of the zoning violation citation at which the Church claimed that if residential zoning prohibited it and other churches of its size from using digital signs, then the zoning unconstitutionally deprived the Church of the opportunity to express religious messages to the public. The BZA found against the Church on the citation.

         The Church filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Clay County circuit court as to both the BZA's denial of the variance request and its decision on the appeal of the citation. The petition was later supplemented to include a second count asking the court to find the zoning code's prohibition against digital monument signs unconstitutionally discriminates against churches because it permits digital signs only on property larger than 10 to 15 acres, and most churches are located on smaller lots. The supplemental petition attempted to add the City of Kansas City as a defendant, but before service was made on the city the circuit court ruled in the Church's favor on its claim the BZA erred in denying the variance.

         The circuit court found in favor of the Church on two grounds: (1) the addition of digital lettering was not a change in sign type so the BZA had the authority to grant the variance; and (2) the Church adequately established the existence of "practical difficulties" so the denial of the variance was not supported by competent and substantial evidence. Because the circuit court found in favor of the Church on these grounds, it entered judgment for the Church without reaching the issues raised in the appeal of the citation. As Kansas City had not been made a party, and as the court had resolved the case on other grounds, the court also did not reach any issue regarding the constitutional validity of the sign requirement the Church sought to raise in its unserved supplemental petition. The BZA appealed. After decision by the court of appeals, this Court granted transfer. Mo. Const. art. V, § 10; Rule 83.02.


         An appellate court "reviews the findings and conclusions of the BZA and not the judgment of the trial court." State ex rel. Teefey v. Bd. of Zoning Adjustment of Kansas City, 24 S.W.3d 681, 684 (Mo. banc 2000). The scope of this Court's review is governed by article V, section 18 of the Missouri Constitution, which provides judicial review of an agency decision "shall include the determination whether the [decision is] authorized by law, and in cases in which a hearing is required by law, whether the [decision is] supported by competent and substantial evidence upon the whole record." This means the "scope of judicial review of the decisions of the board of adjustment in a zoning proceedings is limited to a determination of whether the ruling is authorized by law and is supported by competent and substantial evidence upon the whole record." Rosedale-Skinker Improvement Ass'n v. Bd. of Adjustment of City of St. Louis, 425 S.W.2d 929, 936 (Mo. banc 1968); see also Matthew v. Smith, 707 S.W.2d 411, 418 (Mo. banc 1986).

         The question whether the decision is authorized by law is a legal question this Court determines de novo. Teefey, 24 S.W.3d at 684. Determining whether the decision is supported by competent and substantial evidence "does not mean that the reviewing court may substitute its own judgment on the evidence for that of the administrative tribunal." Mann v. Mann, 239 S.W.2d 543, 544 (Mo. App. 1951). Rather, "an appellate court must view the evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom in a light most favorable to the decision." Teefey, 24 S.W.3d at 684. The burden is on the party seeking the variance to demonstrate it should be granted. Baumer v. City of Jennings, 247 S.W.3d 105, 113-14 (Mo. App. 2008); USCOC of Greater Mo. v. City of Ferguson, Mo., 583 F.3d 1035, 1043 (8th Cir. 2009) (Missouri places the burden of demonstrating a practical difficulty on the party requesting the variance).

         To the extent Highlands Homes Association v. Board of Adjustment, 306 S.W.3d 561, 565 (Mo. App. 2009), State ex rel. Branum v. Board of Zoning Adjustment of City of Kansas City, Mo., 85 S.W.3d 35, 39 n.1 (Mo. App. 2002), Hutchens v. St. Louis County, 848 S.W.2d 616, 617 (Mo. App. 1993), and similar cases suggest the "competent and substantial evidence" standard is used only when reviewing use variances, and an abuse of discretion standard is used when reviewing nonuse variances, they are incorrect and should no longer be followed. [4] Missouri's constitution specifically mandates the standard of review for variances is whether the decision is supported by competent and substantial evidence. It does not distinguish between types of variances, and this Court has no authority to depart from that standard. Mo. Const. art. V, § 18; Matthew, 707 S.W.2d at 418 n.8.


         Section 88-810 defines "Sign Type" as a "group or class of signs that are regulated, allowed or not allowed in this code as a group or class." It then lists and defines several possible sign types, such as monument signs, wall signs, digital signs, and electronic signs. Id.

         The BZA suggests it had no authority to grant the Church's request for a variance. In support, the BZA argues because digital signs are defined as signs having digital lettering, [5] this means the Church's addition of digital lettering to its monument sign must have changed the sign type from a monument sign to a digital sign. And, the BZA notes, section 88-445-12 prohibits it from granting a variance changing the sign type. The BZA concludes this means it was without authority to grant the Church a variance to add digital lettering to its monument sign.

         The Church counters that the type of lettering on a sign is not included in the zoning code's definition of what type of sign is a "monument sign." It is correct. Section 88-810 defines a "monument sign" as a "sign placed upon a base that rests upon the ground where the width of the base of the sign is a minimum of 75 percent of the width of the longest part of the sign." The Church's sign fit within this definition of "monument sign" both before and after the change in the lettering from manual to digital, for the zoning code's definition of "monument sign" does not include any language about what kind of lettering is required on a monument sign. It is a different section of the zoning code - section 88-445-06-A-4(a) - that prohibits "any form of digital or electronic display" on monument signs in residential areas. The digital lettering, not barred by the definition of monument sign, simply makes the Church's sign one that fails to comply with one of the other requirements a monument sign should meet.

         The BZA's narrower interpretation of what constitutes a monument sign appears to be premised on the belief a sign can be of only one sign type at a time, which would mean a monument sign, by definition, cannot include a digital display as the zoning code provides that a sign with a digital display is a digital sign. The language of the zoning code does not support the BZA's premise.

         This Court interprets ordinances using "the same general rules of construction as are applicable to the statutes of the state." Fleming v. Moore Bros. Realty Co., 251 S.W.2d 8, 15 (Mo. 1952). When interpreting a statute, "no portion of [it] is read in isolation, but rather is read in context to the entire statute, harmonizing all provisions." Aquila Foreign Qualifications Corp. v. Dir. of Revenue, 362 S.W.3d 1, 4 (Mo. banc 2012). This means the definition of monument sign in section 88-810 must be harmonized with other sections of the zoning code.

         Looking at the zoning code as a whole, it is evident the sign types set out in the code are inherently overlapping. For example, section 88-445-06-A-4(b) includes "wall signs" among the type of signs allowed in residential areas but then regulates their use of digital lettering. While wall signs with digital lettering may fit within the definition of digital signs, the zoning code does not preclude them from also being wall signs.

         Similarly, section 88-445-08-A(3) of the zoning code recognizes monument signs may have digital lettering and remain monument signs. It provides that, in certain non-residential districts, "Electronic, digital, or motorized monument signs are permitted" so long as they comply with certain additional requirements. Section 88-445-08-A(3) thereby expressly permits monument signs to have electronic, digital, or motorized components in non-residential districts. Addition of an electronic, digital, or motorized component, therefore, cannot preclude a sign from being of the monument sign type. See Briggs v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co.,680 S.W.2d 444, 445 (Mo. App. 1984) ("An adjective modifies a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, or to indicate its quantity or extent.") (emphasis added). To accept the BZA's argument that the addition of a digital component to a ...

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