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Capitol Zoning District Commission v. Humphrey

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

May 16, 2018

CAPITOL ZONING DISTRICT COMMISSION APPELLANT
v.
MARION ANDREW HUMPHREY AND VERNITA T. HUMPHREY APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SECOND DIVISION [NO. 60CV-16-100] HONORABLE CHRISTOPHER CHARLES PIAZZA, JUDGE

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Juliane Chavis, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          Marion A. Humphrey, Sr., for appellees.

          N. MARK KLAPPENBACH, JUDGE

         Appellees Marion and Vernita Humphrey (collectively "Humphrey") requested permission to replace wooden steps with brick steps on the front of their historic residence located at 2115 South Arch Street in downtown Little Rock. Appellant Capitol Zoning District Commission ("Commission") denied the application in an administrative-agency proceeding. Humphrey appealed to the Pulaski County Circuit Court, which reversed the Commission's decision. The Commission appeals, arguing that the circuit court order should be reversed. The Commission argues that its administrative decision finding that the brick steps did not conform to the applicable Rehabilitation Standards and denying Humphrey's request was supported by substantial evidence, was not arbitrary or capricious, and should be reinstated. Because there was substantial evidence to support the Commission's decision, we reverse the circuit court.

         Review of administrative-agency decisions, by both the circuit court and the appellate courts, is limited in scope. Ark. State Highway & Transp. Dep't v. Lamar Advantage Holding Co., 2011 Ark. 195, 381 S.W.3d 787. The standard of review to be used by both courts is whether there is substantial evidence to support the agency's findings. Id. The appellate court's review is directed, not toward the circuit court, but toward the decision of the agency, because administrative agencies are better equipped by specialization, insight through experience, and more flexible procedures than courts to determine and analyze legal issues affecting their agencies. Id. When reviewing such decisions, we uphold them if they are supported by substantial evidence and are not arbitrary, capricious, or characterized by an abuse of discretion. Id. Substantial evidence has been defined as valid, legal, and persuasive evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion and force the mind to pass beyond conjecture. Ark. Contractors Licensing Bd. v. Pegasus Renovation Co., 347 Ark. 320, 64 S.W.3d 241 (2001).

         To determine whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, the record is reviewed to ascertain if the decision is supported by relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Ark. State Racing Comm'n v. Ward, Inc., 346 Ark. 371, 57 S.W.3d 198 (2001). When reviewing the evidence, the appellate court gives it its strongest probative force in favor of the agency. Id. The issue is not whether the evidence supports a contrary finding but whether it supports the finding that was made. Id. If there is substantial evidence to support even one basis for denial, this court must affirm the agency's decision. Ark. State Highway & Transp. Dep't v. Ram Outdoor Advertising, 2015 Ark.App. 713, 479 S.W.3d 51. It is the prerogative of the agency to believe or disbelieve any witness and to decide what weight to accord the evidence. Id.

         The more precise law on this particular agency follows. Our court explained the creation and function of the Capitol Zoning District Commission in Capitol Zoning District Commission v. Cowan, 2012 Ark.App. 619, 429 S.W.3d 267. In the Cowan appeal, the specific issue was a request to build a fence at the Cowan residence at a certain height, not a request to replace front steps. Nonetheless, the Cowan decision explained the Commission's overall purpose and guiding principles:

The General Assembly created the Capitol Zoning District Commission to preserve the dignity of and to coordinate physical development in certain Little Rock areas, including an area surrounding the Governor's Mansion where Cowan's residence is located. The Commission has the authority to adopt a comprehensive master zoning plan, and has exclusive authority over the zoning and regulation of the utilization of all property within the Capitol Zoning District. Following adoption of the master zoning plan, the Commission has the authority to approve or disapprove the location and design of any improvements to be placed upon any land in the district, and no improvements may be placed upon any land in the district unless the design and proposed location shall be approved by the Commission. Such improvements include, but are not limited to, "buildings, including additions and alterations, parking lots and facilities, and all other construction whatsoever. . . ." After the adoption of the master zoning plan, "no improvement of any nature nor any change of land use shall commence within the district without a permit issued by the Commission." Clearly, these statutory provisions establish the Commission's authority to approve or disapprove Cowan's proposed fence.
. . . .
The Rehabilitation Standards are historical-preservation guidelines used by property owners in determining how to renovate and maintain their properties. They are also guidelines used by the Commission in evaluating requests to add to or change properties in the district, and they have been adopted as regulations in the Arkansas Administrative Code. A preface to the Rehabilitation Standards states their purpose and function as follows:
Change is a sign of economic health and confidence in Little Rock's future… However, the character of change must be managed to assure that the heritage of Arkansas as represented in these special areas is protected and that the urban framework will support and enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors.
Historic buildings should be treated with respect, and additions and other new buildings should strengthen the design context. If the imprint of new construction is to be positive, thoughtful consideration must be given to each change in the built fabric of the community.
Uncontrolled demolition, alteration and insensitive new construction can irreparably alter the character of the area. Once lost, the ambience of the Mansion and Capitol Areas ...

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