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Posts Tagged ‘rational basis’

Council’s decision not to allow locking covers in lieu of fences around pools had rational basis

May 9th, 2013

by Kaitlin Heinen and Gary Taylor

Gregory Frandsen, et al. v. City of North Oaks
(Minnesota Court of Appeals, February 19, 2013)

The City of North Oaks enacted an ordinance (§§ 150.055-.062) in 1989 that requires permits to build swimming pools and that swimming pools be enclosed by safety fences. Michael Johnson, James Rechtiene, and Gregory Frandsen (the appellants) own swimming pools not enclosed by fences, despite their permits being contingent upon compliance with the fencing requirement.  Instead all three have automatic locking pool covers. In April 2010, the City notified the appellants that they were in violation of the fencing requirement. The appellants asked the City to consider amending the ordinance so that it would allow automatic locking covers to serve as an alternative. The City agreed to suspend enforcement and research the alternative.

After forming subcommittees to research several alternatives, reviewing information from insurance companies, and hearing from citizens at public hearings the planning commission agreed to recommend to the city council that fences be required to enclose all pools built after 1989, that the back of a home could be used as one side of the enclosure, and that locking covers not be allowed as a substitute for the fencing requirement. At a December 2010 meeting, the city council voted in favor of the planning commission’s recommendation. The amended ordinance became effective in July 2011. So in April 2011, the City notified the appellants that they had until July 1 to comply with the amended ordinance. Appellants responded by bringing this suit against the City, alleging that the amended ordinance violates their equal protection rights and that the amended ordinance is arbitrary and capricious. The district court denied their appeal, so the appellants appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals’ duty is to determine “whether the district court properly applied the law and whether there are genuine issues of material fact that preclude summary judgment.” The district court referred to the ordinance as one that “promote[s] the health, safety and general welfare of [the city’s] residents.” The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed that the ordinance is a general safety ordinance.

By exempting pre-1989 pools from the ordinance, the appellants argued that their equal protection rights were violated. They argued that there is no rational reason for this exclusion when the purpose of the ordinance is to keep children from harm: “[W]hatever danger to children exists with respect to pools built after the effective date of the ordinance also exists with respect to pools built before the effective date of the ordinance.” Since the City’s pool safety-fence ordinance became effective in May 1989, building permits of pools prior to May 1989 were not conditioned to comply with this ordinance. But the appellants’ building permits were conditioned to comply with this ordinance because their pools were built after 1989. Therefore the appellants are not similarly situated to homeowners who built pools prior to 1989. In addition, “the practice of grandfathering non-conforming properties has been upheld in the face of equal-protection challenges since at least 1914.” The appellants failed to explain why grand-fathering is rational with respect to zoning ordinances, but irrational with respect to a general welfare ordinance, so the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that it was not a violation of equal protection for the City to treat its residents differently with respect to the law effective when their pools were built.

The appellants also argued, without explanation, that the amended ordinance was arbitrary and capricious because it allowed a wall of a building to serve as one side of the enclosure, which they argued increased the risk of harm to children. The appellants cited a unidentified report from “US Public Safety Commission” that supported the conclusion that a house should never be considered part of the fence. But the court could not verify the existence of a “US Public Safety Commission.” To the contrary, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report considered by the planning commission stated that “when a door opens directly onto the pool area, ‘the wall of the house is an important part of the pool barrier.’” Amending an ordinance is a legislative power in which the municipality has discretion as long as there is a rational basis for its decision. The court held that the City’s decision is rational because it is directly related to promoting prevention of trespassing children gaining access to pools. The City’s decision is not arbitrary as long as one valid reason exists.

Finally, the appellants contested the City’s decision to not allow pool covers as an alternative to the fence requirement. They pointed to evidence that showed that a pool cover is a safe and viable alternative to a fence. This evidence does not mandate that the City to allow pool covers as an alternative, however. The City researched the issue for more than six months and considered numerous resources before reaching a decision. The City expressed concern for pool covers’ susceptibility to mechanical failures, human errors, and enforcement issues. The decision to require fences and not allow locking covers as substitutes is a rational decision.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision to deny the appellants’ claims.

Equal Protection claims, Minnesota courts, Non-Conforming Uses , , , ,

City fails to demonstrate rational basis for prohibition of billboard extensions

January 24th, 2011

by Melanie Thwing

Clear Channel Outdoor v. City of St. Paul
(Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 25, 2010)

Clear Channel Outdoor has owned and operated billboards in the City of St. Paul, MN since 1925. They regularly use billboard extensions when the customer’s needs require them. In St. Paul billboards until November 2000 were regulated with the zoning code, but were allowed. Then St. Paul, Minnesota Code §64.420 was passed which does not allow for any new billboards to be constructed. Effectively, the standing billboards were allowed as nonconforming uses. St. Paul Code §66.301(g) at the time still regulated the size and length of time for all extensions.

Then in March 2005 concerns about billboard extensions were brought to the city’s Planning Commission. The options of banning extensions altogether and allowing extensions through a permiting process were both discussed.  A resolution in support of the permitting scheme was ultimately adopted and transmitted to the city council. 

In August 2005 at a public hearing the City Council discussed the billboard extension issue, but laid the discussion over until November. During this time the Planning commission again took up the issue and again rejected the outright prohibition of billboard extensions.  Dispite this, in March 2006 the City Council adopted Ordinance 06-160, which prohibited all billboard extensions. The minutes did not reflect any discussion of costs or benefits of the ordinance.

Clear Channel filed a complaint in federal district court claiming (1) unconstitutional and unreasonable use of police power and (2) violation of Clear Channel’s due process and equal protection laws. After two years of mediation the parties were not able to reach an agreement. In January 2009 the district court ultimately found the ordinance arbitrary and capricious and therefore void because no rationale for the City Council’s decision was presented.

The City appealed the district court decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the district court applied the wrong standard. Honn v. City of Coon Rapids was the precedent cited by the district court. Honn declares, “…[t]he municipal body need not necessarily prepare formal findings of fact, but it must, at a minimum, have the reasons for its decision recorded or reduced to writing and in more than just a conclusory fashion…” Clear Channel countered that the city was originally in favor of using the Honn standard, and originally argued it was controlling.

The 8th Circuit agreed with Clear Channel’s argument, citing specific instances where the city said Honn was controlling. Also, the 8th Circuit concurred that Honn was applicable because the procedure it announced should be followed in ‘any zoning matter, whether legislative or quasi-judicial…” Honn has legislative authority fromMinn. Stat. §462.357, subd 1, which gives a municipality the authority to regulate buildings and structures, which is the core of this case. It is concluded that Honn is applicable.

Secondly, the city argues that even if Honn is applicable, the district court was in err because it did not allow a trial that would have allowed the City to demonstrate the rational basis for its decision. The 8th Circuit noted, however, that the City had assured the district court that the record was complete and that a decision could be made. Honn does state that a trial may be allowed, but not required.  A trial is not made available simply “…to provide local governments with a routinized opportunity for a second bite at the apple by neglecting to provide and adequate record for review.” As long as the record is complete, as was the case here, no trial is necessary. The City failed to prove a rational basis for the ordinance prohibiting billboard extensions in any documents provided. The court refused to remand the case and affirmed the district court decision.

Due Process, Federal courts, Signs and billboards , , ,