The New Hampshire Supreme Court recently upheld rulings against a Laconia resident who was using real property as an illegal junkyard. The case, City of Laconia v. Kjellander, provides important lessons for municipalities seeking to enforce their zoning regulations against the record owners of unkempt properties.
The defendant, Robert Kjellander, owned two lots in Laconia where he stored numerous inoperable vehicles, boats, farm equipment, and miscellaneous scrap items. Importantly, his properties fell within a residential district that prohibited junkyards as accessory uses.
After years of warnings, the City of Laconia brought legal action in 2019 to stop Kjellander from operating a junkyard. The city largely prevailed in the trial court, which ordered Kjellander to register or restore his vehicles for road use and remove all scrap from his land. He was also hit with daily fines for noncompliance and was required to pay the city’s legal fees and costs. Kjellander appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, but the justices unanimously sided with the city.
A key issue was whether Kjellander’s property met the zoning ordinance’s definition of a “junkyard.” The zoning ordinance defined this as any place storing two or more unregistered, inoperable vehicles or various scrap materials. Kjellander argued the scrap materials he collected for blacksmithing and a sugar shack didn’t qualify as “scrap.” But the Supreme Court found that the plain language covered the materials in question. After all, the ordinance broadly encompassed “scrap, waste, reclaimable material or debris” stored onsite.
Takeaway: New Hampshire courts will likely favor a municipality’s plain language definitions when interpreting zoning rules against a noncompliant property owner—particularly if the owner has a long history of noncompliance.
Attorney Fee Award
Kjellander also challenged the city’s right to collect attorney fees and costs. However, the Court found statutory authority under RSA 676:17, II, which mandates fee recovery for towns successfully enforcing zoning ordinances through legal action.
Kjellander’s policy arguments against fee-shifting were rejected since courts must follow laws as written. The justices also refused to entertain Kjellander’s late developed argument that fees should have been prorated based on the claims where the city prevailed.
Takeaway: Municipalities can recover legal costs when enforcing zoning ordinances in court, even if the property owner raises objections grounded in fairness, equity, or public policy.
At bottom, City of Laconia v. Kjellander shows that New Hampshire courts will likely uphold local zoning ordinances and penalties levied against the owners of noncompliant properties. Towns should not hesitate to pursue legal action when owners ignore junkyard bans or other similarly situated land use regulations. With perseverance and the law on their side, municipalities can prevail in cleaning up neighborhood eyesores, which runs to the benefit of a municipality’s residents and the community at large.
You can contact Alfano Law by calling (603) 856-8411 or at this link.