Vested Rights

NOTE:  This summary is very simplified, and is provided for informational purposes.  Any questions on this topic should be directed to The Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.

What is Meant by the “Vested Rights Rule”?

The “Vested Rights Rule” means that an applicant for a land use or a development is entitled to consideration and approval if the application is complete, and if it complies with all zoning requirements in place at the time of the application.  Put another way, the right to develop “vests” when a complete application that complies with zoning ordinances is submitted.

What Do Vested Rights Mean to an Applicant?

An applicant whose rights have vested is entitled to consideration of the application under the ordinances in place when the application is filed, and  approval of the application under the zoning ordinances in place, even if the ordinances are subsequently changed.  See Utah Code §§ 10-9a-509(1)(a) and 17-27a-508(1)(a).

Are There Exceptions to the Vested Rights Rule?

An applicant cannot claim vested rights if the process to change a zoning ordinance that would affect the application had been initiated before the application was submitted, and the ordinance change is ultimately approved.
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An applicant may not gain vested rights if the local government can show that there is a “compelling, countervailing” public interest that would be jeopardized if the proposed development were carried out.
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The Utah Code provides that the validity of an approved application is conditioned upon proceeding with reasonable diligence.  Several jurisdictions have ordinances which cancel land use approvals after a period of time with no development activity.

When is an Application Considered Complete?

An application is complete when it is submitted in a form that complies with the applicable requirements of a local zoning ordinance and all required fees have been paid.  See Utah Code §§ 10-9a-509(1)(f) and 17-27a-508(1)(f).

What if a Zoning Ordinance Changes Before an Application is Complete?

The Vested Rights Rule provides that an applicant is entitled to approval if the development application complies with the zoning ordinances in place when the application becomes complete.
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The Utah Code also provides that an application must receive substantive review under the ordinances that were in place when the application became complete, even if there were subsequent changes to the ordinance. This provision recognizes that some development applications require a lengthy review process. If an applicant relied upon the language in a zoning ordinance, it would be unfair to deny that applicant vested rights simply because the ordinance language was changed before the application could be fully reviewed.~See Utah Code §§ 10-9a-509(1)(a)(i) and 17-27a-508(1)(a)(i).

What is Zoning Estoppel?

Zoning estoppel is a rule established by Utah Courts to address situations where it would not be fair to strictly enforce a zoning ordinance, because a property owner relied upon representations made by a local government.  Zoning estoppel is somewhat similar to the vested rights rule, but no development application needs to be submitted.
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Zoning estoppel is usually difficult to establish.  To claim a development right under a zoning estoppel theory, a property owner must show that:
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(1) the local government made representations regarding allowable uses on property;
(2) the property owner made a substantial change in economic position based on those representations, and
(3) it would not be fair for the local government to recant its earlier representation.

How Can the Ombudsman Help?

The Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman can help property owners understand the vested rights rule, and how it would apply to development proposals.  In addition, the Office may issue an Advisory Opinion analyzing a specific situation involving a property owner’s vested rights.