Legislative vs. Quasi-judicial decisions

Community Planning and Zoning May 05, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF

Almost all planning and zoning decisions made by local zoning boards, commissions, and elected officials fall into one of two categories: legislative decisions or quasi-judicial decisions. The basic difference between the two categories is that legislative decisions establish policies for future application, while quasi-judicial, or administrative decisions are the application of those policies. Examples of legislative decisions – those that establish policies – include the:

  • adoption of plans
  • adoption of ordinances (or amendments to ordinances)
  • passing budgets

All legislative decisions are made by the local government’s elected body, but not every decision made by the elected body is a legislative decision.

Examples of quasi-judicial decisions – those that apply previously-established policies – include decisions on:

  • variances
  • special exceptions
  • subdivision plats
  • zoning code violations
  • site plan review

The decisions of a board of adjustment, and many decisions of a planning commission are quasi-judicial decisions. One court has described quasi-judicial decisions in this way:


1. The action occurs in response to a landowner application followed by a statutorily mandated public hearing;

2. as a result of the application, readily identifiable proponents and opponents weigh in on the process; and

3. the decision is localized in its application affecting a particular group of citizens more acutely than the public at large


The distinction between legislative and quasi-judicial decision-making in zoning practice is an important one. In quasi-judicial proceedings the decision-making body must follow stricter procedural requirements (The term “quasi-judicial” literally means court-like; implying that proceedings must be similar to those followed in court proceedings). If the requirements are not followed, the decision could be invalidated by a court if it is challenged. Quasi-judicial proceedings must follow basic standards of due process, including:

  • Proper notice of the hearing
  • Providing everyone with an interest in the proceedings an opportunity to be heard and to hear what others have to say
  • Full disclosure to everyone of the facts being considered by the decision-making body (i.e., no ex parte contacts)
  • An impartial decision-maker free from bias and conflicts of interest
  • Decisions based on the facts of the case, not on political pressure or vocal opposition.

Gary D. Taylor, Iowa State University

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.