by Gary Taylor
O’Connor v. Buffalo County Board of Adjustment and Glacier Sands, LLC
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, April 22, 2014)
On January 13, 2012, R&J Rolling Acres (R&J) applied to Buffalo County for a conditional use permit to establish a frac sand mining operation on property zoned Agricultural. The application identified R&J as the “owner” of the property and Glacier Sands, LLC, as the “developer.” Among the application materials was included a map showing the proposed route trucks would use to travel to and from the property. R&J asserted the haul route would be “south on [State Highway] 88 to [State Highway] 35,” and that an estimated 80 trucks would leave the property via this route every weekday. In February 2012 the Buffalo County Board of Adjustment (Board) held a public hearing on the application, which was continued to Marc. Numerous people spoke up at the hearings about issues related to traffic safety on Highway 88, especially after R&J clarified it expected 126 trucks to leave the site each day instead of 80. At the end of the meeting, the Board voted 2-1 to deny R&J’s application. In its written decision issued March 29, the only reason the Board identified for denying the application was its concern that the large number of trucks leaving the mine site each day would decrease traffic safety on Highway 88.
R&J did not seek circuit court review of the Board’s decision. Instead, on March 27, 2012, R&J submitted a second CUP application. The second application was identical to the first, except that it corrected a misspelled word, changed the proposed number of trucks leaving the site from 80 per day to 126, and proposed to have trucks hauling six days per week instead of five. After a hearing (continued twice to obtain and digest a traffic study from the Wisconsin DOT), the Board granted the second conditional use permit request subject to 43 conditions. Two conditions were to limit to 105 the number of truck loads laving the site daily, and to prohibit hauling on weekends and holidays. The Board’s written decision was similar to the earlier written denial, except that the Board explained:
The Wisconsin DOT Northwest Region contracted with AECOM to conduct a “Traffic Safety Impact Assessment” for [Highway 88] during May and June of 2012 in light of the potential increase in truck volume on [Highway 88] from proposed, new non-metallic mine operations in the area. Representatives of the DOT were present at the hearings/meetings to present the initial as well as updated results of their assessment and answer questions. Specifically, AECOM addressed crashes and crash rates as well as geometric and operational features pertaining to [Highway 88]. Overall, the [DOT] acknowledges that [Highway 88] may have some substandard features, but believes the road can handle increased traffic volumes.
O’Connor, one of the citizens opposing the permit, filed suit, claiming that the Board erred in two respects: (1) the Buffalo County zoning ordinance does not allow frac sand mining as a conditional use in the agricultural district; and (2) after the Board denied R&J’s first CUP application, it was prohibited from considering the merits of R&J’s second application.
Frac sand mining as a conditional use. The Court of Appeals reviewed the Buffalo County zoning ordinance and found that it allows as a conditional use “[m]anufacturing and processing of natural mineral resources indigenous to Buffalo County incidental to the extraction of sand and gravel and the quarrying of limestone and other rock for aggregate purposes, including the erection of buildings, and the installation of necessary machinery and equipment incidental thereto, but not the storage of cement, asphalt, or road oils or the mixing of concrete or black top or related materials, provided that any county, town, or municipal government or its agent may store or mix such materials when incidental to the improvement of highways or streets.” O’Connor argued that because frac sand mines do not extract sand “for aggregate purposes,” they are not allowed as conditional uses. The Board argued that the phrase “for aggregate purposes” referred only to “the quarrying of limestone and other rock,” and therefore “manufacturing and processing of natural mineral resources indigenous to Buffalo County incidental to the extraction of sand and gravel” was allowed. Finding both interpretations reasonable, the Court deferred to the Board’s interpretation because under prior caselaw the Board’s decision is entitled to a presumption of correctness.
Consideration of second application. O’Connor asserted that, after the Board denied R&J’s first application, R&J’s “sole remedy … was to commence a certiorari action in the circuit court.” The Court disagreed. It noted that a county may enact a rule prohibiting a party whose application to the zoning board has been denied from filing a new application absent a substantial change in circumstances, but Buffalo County has not done so. Absent such a rule, an individual is free to submit a second conditional use permit application after the first has been denied, as long as he or she is willing to pay a second application fee. The Court rejected O’Connor’s assertion that the Court’s conclusion places an unfair burden on those opposing the application and creates an uneven playing field. “Filing successive applications clearly places a significant burden on the applicant, as well as those opposing the application. For each additional application, the applicant must pay an additional review fee. The applicant must spend time preparing a new application and appearing at new hearings before the board of adjustment. If the board ultimately grants a successive application, the applicant then faces the prospect that opponents will file an action for certiorari review, in which the applicant will likely choose to participate to defend the permit.”
Alternatively, O’Connor relied on the doctrine of claim preclusion. “Claim preclusion provides that a ‘final judgment on the merits in one action bars parties from relitigating any claim that arises out of the same relevant facts, transactions, or occurrences.…The doctrine has three elements: (1) identity between the parties or their privies in the prior and present suits, (2) prior litigation that resulted in a final judgment on the merits by a court with jurisdiction, and (3) identity of the causes of action in the two suits.” In questioning whether the doctrine extends beyond judicial judgments, neither O’Connor nor the Court could cite any Wisconsin case holding that a board of adjustment’s unreviewed denial of an application precludes it from considering a subsequent application submitted by the same party. Indeed, the Court again pointed to the existence of local rules prohibiting successive applications in support of its conclusion that claim preclusion did not bar the Board in this case from considering R&J’s second CUP application. “If claim preclusion operated to bar zoning boards from considering successive applications, there would be no need for these successive application rules.”
The Court affirmed the Board’s decision to grant the conditional use permit.