Abandonment of nonconforming use need not be established, but abandonment is evidence of discontinued use
by Gary Taylor
Moyer v. City of Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, May 29, 2013)
Don Moyer owns Hawkeye Motors, Inc. By 1997, Hawkeye Motors held title to multiple parcels of property on the corner of East 14th Street and Washington Avenue in Des Moines, including the lot located at 1433 East 14th Street (Lot 1433). Lot 1433 spans 20,500 square feet over two parcels and contains a 1652 square foot building originally built for auto repair. From the time Hawkeye Motors purchased the property until 2006, the company either sold vehicles from Lot 1433 or leased the property to other tenants to sell or repair used cars. The lot was originally zoned as C-2, 2, which allowed used vehicle display. The city later rezoned Lot 1433 as C-1, a “neighborhood retail commercial district” that prohibits used vehicle display. On August 23, 2001, the city granted the property a legal nonconforming status for used auto sales and issued a certificate of occupancy to Hawkeye Motors to utilize the property as a “used automobile sales lot.”
Moyer held a used car dealer’s license issued to Hawkeye by the Iowa Department of Transportation that included Lot 1433, but allowed the license on the lot to lapse in 2004. In January 2006, Moyer leased Lot 1433 to Diaz Tinting, Inc. The city issued Leonardo Diaz a certificate of zoning compliance, which on January 10, 2006, authorized “building reuse from used cars to detailing and tinting.” The certificate provides: “No change of use may be made at this location unless a new Certificate of Occupancy is granted for such use and no change in this building or land may be made without first consulting the Zoning Enforcement Office.” In March 2007, Hawkeye Motors sold Lot 1433 on contract to Don and Gloria Moyer (his wife) personally, and issued the deed to the couple in 2011. During a property inspection by the city in January 2009, the enforcement officer discovered cars were being sold and repaired on Lot 1433. The city notified the Moyers six days later, and again in May 2009, that this parcel lost its legal nonconforming use status and consequently the auto sales and repair activities were unauthorized. The Moyers did not appeal either determination. An April 24, 2010 inspection of Lot 1433 found continued illegal auto repair, and the city again notified the Moyers of “illegal business operations….” When the Diaz Tinting lease ended one year later Moyer asked the city for a letter to the DOT stating that Lot 1433 was properly zoned for displaying and selling used cars. The city denied Moyer’s request. Moyer appealed the city’s denial, but the zoning board of adjustment upheld the city’s refusal. Moyer appealed.
The Iowa Court of Appeals made the following statements regarding nonconforming uses on its way to upholding the decision of the zoning board of adjustment:
- Sometimes intent to abandon may be inferred from a failure to apply for a license to carry on the nonconforming use. [The same may be inferred] from amending the licensed use of the property.
- Because [the Des Moines Ordinance] sets a time frame for determining when discontinuation of a property’s former use triggers the loss of its nonconforming designation, the city need not prove the owner’s intent to abandon. But intent to abandon presupposes discontinued use. Therefore, while proof of intent is not necessary to establish abandonment, an inference of the owner’s intent to abandon is relevant to nonuse.
The court concluded that because Moyer was without a dealer’s license to sell vehicles on the property, and his tenants had a certificate permitting the property’s repurpose to detailing and tinting, the board of adjustment could properly infer discontinued use as a used car display lot for at least six months [required under the ordinance] between 2006 and 2009. Moyer attempted to distinguish between his 2001 “Certificate of Occupancy” and Diaz’s 2006 “Certificate of Zoning Compliance,” arguing that the latter could not revoke the former, and therefore could not be used as evidence of abandonment; however, the Des Moines zoning officer explained that the purpose of the Certificate of Zoning Compliance is “to document the change in use mostly for office use.” Both forms read substantially the same, including the requirement that “this certificate must be posted in a conspicuous place on the premises.” The court found that the board was entitled to rely on the 2006 certificate as circumstantial evidence the property no longer served as a used car lot.