Missionaries of La Salette v. Whitefish Bay

In Missionaries of La Salette v. Whitefish Bay, 267 Wis. 609, 66 N.W. 2d 627 (1954), the Village of Whitefish Bay, by zoning ordinance, purported to restrict the use of property in the particular district to single-family dwellings. The ordinance defined "family" as "one or more individuals living, sleeping, cooking, or eating on premises as a single housekeeping unit." (p. 611). In La Salette, the building in a residential neighborhood was occupied by a group of priests and lay brothers, who at no time exceeded eight in number. The two lay brothers did the housekeeping and prepared and served the meals. The priests lived at the home but performed their religious duties elsewhere. The Village of Whitefish Bay argued that the term "family" was restricted in meaning to a group of individuals related to one another by blood or marriage. The Court disagreed, relying upon the public policy that restrictions placed upon the use of land must be strictly construed. The Court stated that a violation of a zoning ordinance can only occur when there is a plain disregard of limitations imposed by express words. The court said: "Covenants restricting the use of land are construed most strictly against one claiming their benefit and in favor of free and unrestricted use of property; a violation of the covenant occurs only when there is a plain disregard of the limitations imposed by its express words." (p. 614) The court pointed out that this rule is equally applicable to private deed restrictions and building and zoning ordinances. The court held that the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette were not in violation of the zoning restriction, because the ordinance did not expressly define a "family" to exclude all who are not related by blood or marriage relationship. The court stated: "Had it been the pleasure of the legislative body when defining the word 'family,' to have excluded in the district any dwelling use of premises there situated, by a group of individuals not related to one another by blood or marriage, it might have done so. Since there is a complete absence of any such limitation, it seems clear that it was not the legislative intent to restrict the use and occupancy to members of a single family related within degrees of consanguinity or affinity." (p. 615)