MMR HOLDINGS, LLC, and TOWN & COUNTRY FORD, INC., Petitioners, v.
CITY OF CHARLOTTE and the CHARLOTTE ZONING BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT,
Filed: 15 November 2005
Zoning_definition of facade_alteration of nonconforming sign
An order that a nonconforming sign be removed because more of the facade of the building
had been altered than a city zoning ordinance allowed was remanded for determination of a
reasonable definition of facade consistent with the city's intent in passing the ordinance and with
the use of the word throughout the ordinance. The zoning board of adjustment may then determine
the extent of facade alteration in this case.
Appeal by petitioners from order entered 1 September 2004 by
Special Superior Court Judge Albert Diaz in Mecklenburg County
Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 17 August 2005.
James, McElroy & Diehl, P.A., by Richard B. Fennell, for
Office of the City Attorney, by Assistant City Attorney Terrie
V. Hagler-Gray, for respondents-appellees.
The sole issue raised in this appeal by petitioners MMR
Holdings, LLC and Town & Country Ford, Inc. (collectively "T&C") is
the proper construction of the word "facade" in the zoning
ordinance of the City of Charlotte. Because both the Charlotte
Zoning Board of Adjustment (the "Board") and the superior court
defined the term "facade" in a manner that is at odds with the
term's plain and ordinary meaning, we reverse and remand for
T&C has operated an automobile dealership for many years on
leased property in Charlotte, North Carolina currently owned by MMR
Holdings, LLC. One of the features of T&C's dealership is a large
sign stating the name of the dealership, which stretches across the
top of a 40-foot deep, eight-foot thick canopy attached to the
front of the dealership building. The canopy has been in place
since the late 1970s and extends the width of the building.
A provision of the City's zoning ordinance specifically
prohibits roof signs. Charlotte, N.C., Code
§ 13.105 (2004)
is undisputed that the sign on T&C's canopy violates this
prohibition. The City's zoning ordinance, however, permits
nonconforming roof signs erected prior to 1 February 1988 _ as
T&C's sign was _ to remain until there are "[s]tructural or
nonstructural alterations excluding routine maintenance and repair
of the facade of the principal building that exceed 50% of the
facade's area." At that time, any non-conforming sign must be
removed or brought into compliance with the ordinance. Charlotte,
§ 13.112(1)(a), .112(1)(b)(3) (2004).
In spring 2003, T&C remodeled portions of the interior and
exterior of its dealership. Among other changes, this remodel
included the complete replacement of the Plexiglas surrounding the
canopy with new lukabond paneling. Subsequent to T&C's remodel,
the Zoning Code Enforcement Inspector cited T&C for violating the
prohibition on roof signs. The inspector took the position that
T&C's remodel constituted an alteration of more than 50% of the
facade of the principal building and, therefore, voided the legalnonconforming status of T&C's sign. The inspector ordered T&C to
remove the sign.
T&C appealed the citation to the Board. The Board found in
3. A facade is defined in The American
Heritage Dictionary as "a face of a
building; especially, such a face that is
given distinguishing treatment. The face
or front part of anything[;] especially,
an artificial or false front."
4. A canopy is defined in Section 13.102 of
the [City's zoning ordinance] as "a
permanent structure other than an awning
made of cloth, metal or other material
attached or unattached to a building for
the purpose of providing shelter to
patrons or automobiles, or as a
decorative feature on a building wall."
5. The extreme width of the canopy attached
to [T&C's] building separates the glass
front of the building from the new
artificial or false front
on which [T&C]
has placed the new signage. . . . .
6. The front of the canopy to [T&C's]
building is the facade of the building
(Emphases added.) Based upon these findings, the Board concluded
that T&C lost its "legal nonconforming status . . . when it
structurally altered more than 50%" of the front of the canopy
during T&C's remodel. The Board, therefore, affirmed the
(See footnote 1)
Pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-388 (2003), T&C filed a
petition for writ of certiorari in the Mecklenburg County SuperiorCourt, seeking review of the Board's decision. The court granted
T&C's petition, concluded that the Board's construction of the word
"facade" in the City's ordinance was not unreasonable, and affirmed
the Board's decision. T&C filed a timely notice of appeal to this
To review the decision of a zoning board, a superior court
must determine what type of error the petitioner asserts. In re
, 129 N.C. App. 499, 501, 500 S.E.2d 723, 725 (1998). When
the petitioner claims that the municipality's conclusions were
either unsupported by the evidence or arbitrary and capricious, the
appropriate standard of review is the "whole record" test. Id
the other hand, if the petitioner correctly contends that the
agency's decision was based on an error of law, de novo
On an appeal from a superior court's review of a zoning board
decision, the scope of our review is limited to determining whether
the trial court exercised the appropriate standard of review and,
if so, deciding if the trial court did so properly. Harding v. Bd.
of Adjustment of Davie County
, __ N.C. App. __, __, 612 S.E.2d 431,
434 (2005). Our standard of review is the same as that of the
superior court. Id
Here, the outcome of the case turns on the proper construction
of the word "facade" and, therefore, involves solely a question of
law that we consider de novo
. Tucker v. Mecklenburg County Zoning
Bd. of Adjustment
, 148 N.C. App. 52, 55, 557 S.E.2d 631, 634(2001), aff'd in part per curiam
, disc. review improvidently
allowed in part
, 356 N.C. 658, 576 S.E.2d 324 (2003). The
essential goal in construing an ordinance is to determine the
intent of the municipality's legislative body. Knight v. Town of
, 164 N.C. App. 766, 769, 596 S.E.2d 881, 884 (2004).
Accordingly, the rules applicable to the construction of statutes
also apply to the construction of municipal ordinances. Id.
When a word is not otherwise defined in an ordinance, we
should give the term "its plain and ordinary meaning." Ayers v.
Bd. of Adjustment for Town of Robersonville
, 113 N.C. App. 528,
531, 439 S.E.2d 199, 201, disc. review denied
, 336 N.C. 71, 445
S.E.2d 28 (1994). Courts "are permitted to look beyond the
language of [an] ordinance only when it contains some ambiguity."
Procter v. City of Raleigh Bd. of Adjustment
, 140 N.C. App. 784,
786, 538 S.E.2d 621, 622 (2000).
The word "facade" is not defined in the City's zoning
ordinance and the parties do not assert its use is ambiguous. In
order to determine the term's plain and ordinary meaning, the Board
referred to a dictionary.
(See footnote 2)
As set out in its findings of fact, the
Board adopted an edited version of the definition included in TheAmerican Heritage Dictionary
. The full definition of "facade"
contained in American Heritage
. A face of a building;
especially, such a face that is given
distinguishing treatment: "Pink classical
facades peeled off and showed the mud beneath
(Graham Greene). 2. The face or front part
of anything; especially, an artificial or
false front: "Of most famous people we know
only the imposing facade
" (Edith Hamilton).
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
Of the two definitions set out in the American Heritage
Board bypassed the first, which applies to architecture, in favor
of the second. Based upon the second definition, the Board
concluded that the front of T&C's canopy was an "artificial or
false front" and was, therefore, the facade of the entire building.
The first definition relating to architecture was, however, more
applicable to a decision regarding what portion of a building
constitutes its facade. Moreover, the explanatory sentence _
edited out by the Board _ uses the term in the context of a
physical structure: "Pink classical facades peeled off and showed
the mud beneath
By contrast, the second definition, which was relied upon by
the Board in reaching its decision, defines facade more generally
as the "face or front part of anything." Unlike the first
definition, it does not specifically relate to buildings or
architecture. Indeed, the corresponding explanatory sentence _
omitted by the Board _ suggests that using the term to designate an
"artificial or false front," critical language for the Board'sdecision, is inapposite in the building or architectural context:
"Of most famous people we know only the imposing facade." The
second more generally applicable definition of "facade" frequently
is used in a metaphorical, rather than physical, sense. The
Board's reliance on the second definition rather than the
architectural definition was unreasonable. Reference to Webster's
Third New International Dictionary
") supports our view
that American Heritage
's first definition is more pertinent to the
proper construction of the ordinance. Webster's
as "the front of a building[;] . . . a face . . . of a building
that is given emphasis by special architectural treatment . . . ."
Webster's Third New Int'l Dictionary
Applied to T&C's dealership, the definitions in both American
suggest that the facade is at least
entire side of the building to which the canopy, being the special
or distinguishing architectural treatment, is attached. Given
these definitions, a facade cannot be merely the front of any
special architectural treatment, as the Board found. We,
therefore, conclude it was error for the Board to determine that
the facade of T&C's entire building consisted solely of the eight-
foot thick strip across the front of T&C's canopy.
The definitions of both "face" and "front" support our
determination that the Board's definition of facade was
unreasonable. Both words feature prominently in the American
definitions of "facade." "Face" is defined
as: [A] front, upper, or outer surface or a
surface presented to view or regarded as
principal: as a: the front of anything having
two or four sides _ opposed to back
distinguished from side
b: the facade esp. of
a building . . . .
. Similarly, "front" is defined as something that confronts or
faces forward, including "a face of a building; esp
: the face that
contains the principal entrance . . . ." Id.
at 914. Thus, the
"face" or "front" of a building includes the principal side that is
presented to view or contains the principal entrance. Indeed, even
the City notes in its brief that T&C has a canopy "attached to the
" of its building. (Emphasis added.)
We also observe that other portions of the City's ordinance
use the terms "facade" and "canopy" in a manner that counsels
against affirming the Board's interpretation of the words in this
case. A court "does not read segments of a statute in isolation.
Rather, we construe statutes in pari materia
, giving effect, if
possible, to every provision." Rhyne v. K-Mart Corp.
, 358 N.C.
160, 188, 594 S.E.2d 1, 20 (2004).
Use of the term "facade" throughout the rest of the ordinance
suggests an intention that the word be construed more broadly than
as merely the front of a canopy. For example, in a section
addressing urban design standards, the ordinance states that all
"buildings fronting directly on a street shall be designed so that
the first floor street facade
of the building(s) along all streets
includes clear glass windows and doors
. . . ." Charlotte, N.C.,
§ 9.1209(1)(a) (2004) (emphases added). Several subsections
later the ordinance states that a "blank wall [can be] a facade"and that emergency exit doors may be located on facades only if the
doors are "decorative and part of the overall building design."
Charlotte, N.C., Code
§ 9.1209(1)(d), (f) (2004). Similarly, in a
section addressing multifamily dwellings, the ordinance states that
certain buildings "must have the building elevation facing the
street as a front architectural facade with an entrance doorway
Charlotte, N.C., Code
§ 9.303(18)(f)(iv) (2004) (emphasis added).
The requirements in these sections that facades have windows,
doorways, and decorative architecture cannot be reconciled with the
Board's interpretation in this case that the facade includes the
decorative architecture, but not the dealership's glass front and
By comparison, the ordinance's further use of the term
"canopy" never demonstrates any intention by the City to have it
subsume the term "facade." In another section, the ordinance
states that canopies "and similar appurtenances
are encouraged at
the entrances to buildings . . . ." Charlotte, N.C., Code
10.804(1)(c) (2004) (emphasis added). Thus, a "canopy" in §
10.804(1)(c) is an appurtenance to the face of a building _ not a
facade in and of itself. Indeed, even the ordinance chapter
addressed in this appeal states that "[c]anopies and awnings shall
not be calculated in the total square footage of a building wall."
Charlotte, N.C., Code
§ 13.108(2) (2004). The Board's
interpretation would require removing a building's "facade" from
the calculation of a building wall's square footage since under the
Board's definition, the facade would merely be the front of thecanopy, which is explicitly excluded from the calculation. We do
not think this odd result was intended by the City when passing the
ordinance. Variety Theatres, Inc. v. Cleveland County
, 282 N.C.
272, 275, 192 S.E.2d 290, 292 (1972) ("In construing any statute or
ordinance the court will avoid an interpretation which would lead
to absurd results."), appeal dismissed
, 411 U.S. 911, 36 L. Ed. 2d
303, 93 S. Ct. 1548 (1973).
While we have rejected the Board's interpretation of the word
"facade" in the decision below, we recognize that one of the
functions of a board of adjustment is to interpret its own local
zoning ordinance, and its interpretations are owed some deference.
Whiteco Outdoor Adver. v. Johnston County Bd. Of Adjustment
N.C. App. 465, 470, 513 S.E.2d 70, 74 (1999). We, therefore,
decline to consider T&C's position that its "facade" included all
faces of the building that the public can see. While that is a
reasonable interpretation of the word "facade," it would equally be
reasonable to limit "facade" to the front of the building. We
remand this case to the superior court to remand to the Board to
determine in the first instance what reasonable definition of
"facade" is most consistent with the City's intention in passing
the ordinance and with the use of the word "facade" throughout the
ordinance. Cf. Coscan Washington, Inc. v. Maryland-Nat'l Capital
Park & Planning Comm'n
, 87 Md. App. 602, 628, 590 A.2d 1080, 1092
(holding that a planning board was reasonable in its chosen
definition of "facade"), cert. denied
, 324 Md. 324, 597 A.2d 421
(1991). Once the Board has defined "facade" in this manner, it maythen determine which of the walls of T&C's dealership are part of
the facade and whether more than 50% of the facade was altered in
Reversed and remanded.
Judges CALABRIA and ELMORE concur.