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The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog

Local Governments are Batting 1.000 in the Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals handed two local governments victories in the opinions handed down February 13, 2024. In the first case, the government allowed a zoning change to permit the construction of a commercial business in an agricultural zone abutting a cemetery. In the latter, the Court upholds a determination that property owned by a church as not used for a religious purpose and, thus, was subject to taxation.




 Anne Edwards Hartley, et al. v. Board of Supervisors of Brunswick County, Virginia (February 13, 2024) involves the challenge to a zoning change to allow the construction of a an outlet seemingly ubiquitous general store chain in an a agricultural zone. The Court of Appeals, Judge Ortiz joined by Judges AtLee and Lorish, does something quite extraordinary in it 20 page opinion -- the Court expresses sympathy for the neighboring landowners objections to having yet another Dollar General pop up, but ultimately conclude that "the Board meets these arguments with several reasonable bases for the upzoning decision—including economic development prospects, support from some members of the community, and the location of other businesses—albeit of a smaller scale—near the property." Because the Board produced “some evidence of reasonableness" as to its actions, the courts may not interfere with the decision.


Emmanuel Worship Center, et al. v. The City of Petersburg (February 13, 2024) is on its first trip to the Court of Appeals, but not its first appeal in this case challenging an assessment of taxes by the City of Petersburg. The case was previously decided in the Supreme Court before the shake-up in appellate court jurisdiction, and is now back following a remand from that Court.


As a rule, property used for religious purposes is exempt from taxation. However, the relevant statutory language is that the use must be "exclusively" for such purposes. Here, the property in question was partially rented to a commercial tenant. Based on this evidence, the circuit court ruled that the property was not used exclusively for religious purposes and, therefore, was not tax exempt.




The Court of Appeals, Judge Raphael joined by Judges Athey and Friedman, affirmed the decision of the circuit court. The term "exclusively" was conclusively construed by the Supreme Court in Westminster-Canterbury of Hampton Roads, Inc. v. City of Virginia Beach, 238 Va. 493 (1989), requiring that the taxpayer has the burden of proving that the use is exclusive of any other purpose. The Court also rejected the church's argument that because the rent collected was used to support its religious activities, the "use" was derivatively for religious purposes.


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