Pomponio v. Fauquier County Board of Supervisors, ___ F.3d ___ (No. 91-1107 - 4th Cir., 4/15/94)

Federal courts should abstain from jurisdiction in cases where federal claims stem solely from construction of state or local land use or zoning law.

Plaintiff Pomponio's preliminary subdivision plan was denied following his disagreement with county officials as to the proper application of the county zoning and subdivision ordinances' density reduction provisions. Pomponio brought suit in federal district court, alleging violations of procedural and substantive due process and equal protection as a result of arbitrary behavior, abuse of authority and misconduct by local officials during consideration of the subdivision plan. The district court, acting sua sponte, dismissed the case without prejudice, applying the absention doctrine of Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943) (a federal district court sitting in equity may decline to exercise its jurisdiction if abstention is necessary to show proper regard for a state government's domestic policy).

In a 9-3 decision, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, affirmed. The majority exhaustively reviewed both Supreme Court and 4th Circuit precedent before concluding that "[i]n cases in which plaintiffs' federal claims stem solely from construction of state or local land use or zoning law, not involving the constitutional validity of the same and absent exceptional circumstances not present here, the district courts should abstain under the Burford doctrine to avoid interference with the State's or locality's land use policy." This follows from Supreme Court cases indicating that Burford abstention is appropriate where federal review would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern.

Applying this rule to the facts of the case, the majority found that Pomponio's argument boils down to an assertion that his plan complied with the ordinance and local officials misapplied the law and abused their discretion in disapproving it. Burford abstention is proper as to claims that a state agency has misapplied its authority or failed to properly weigh relevant state law factors.

Note: This case, along with recent substantive due process cases in the land use context, demonstrates the 4th Circuit's continuing resistance to land use litigation in the federal courts.

[Land Use; Abstention Doctrine]