Yes, we’re back, and with a case on …. spot zoning

by Gary Taylor

Ely v. City of Ames
(Iowa Court of Appeals, June 30, 2010)

The Elys own a tire and automotive service center on Lincoln Way.  Next door is the Martin House.  From approximately 1920 to the late forties the Martins provided room and board to African-American students attending Iowa State University when the students were denied housing elsewhere.  George Washington Carver, distinguished botanist and the first African American to graduate from Iowa State University, often visited the Martin’s home when he returned to Ames.  The house is also an example of the Craftsman architectural style, and is one of the few remaining houses on Lincoln Way, which has become a major commercial arterial.  The property is zoned “Highway-Oriented Commercial” but exists as a legal nonconforming residential use. 

The Archie and Nancy Martin Foundation submitted an application for Ames to designate the home as an historic landmark.  Over objections by the Elys, the Ames city council approved the designation and rezoned the Martin property as a “Historic Preservation Overlay District.”  The Elys sued, raising issues of (1) procedural due process, (2) equal protection, and (3) spot zoning.  The district court found in favor of the city on all three issues, and the Elys appealed.

Procedural due process.  On the procedural due process claim the Iowa Court of Appeals started by stating the well-settled legal principle that “a person is only entitled to procedural due process when a state action threatens to deprive a person of a protected property or liberty interest.”  The Elys argued that they have a protected interest in maintaining the value of their land, but the Court of Appeals disagreed.  “An abstract desire or expectation of a benefit is not sufficient,” but rather “a property interest is only protected if there is a legitimate claim of entitlement.”  The Court further ventured to state that even if it could somehow be shown that the Elys had protected property interests that were implicated by the historic landmark zoning of the neighboring property, the public hearing at which the rezoning was discussed and decided by the city council gave the Elys sufficient opportunity to be heard to satisfy procedural due process.

Equal protection.  The Elys next claimed that because the historic landmark designation fails to require the Martins to adequately maintain the property, it results in differing treatment between historic landmarks and surrounding properties and thus violates the Ely’s right to equal protection of the law.  The Court dismissed this argument by first recognizing that differing treatment under the law is permissible if parties are not similarly situated.  The Court concluded that promoting preservation of historical and cultural landmarks is a legitimate governmental interest sufficient to support differing treatment of properties.  Further, the Court observed that the Martin property was, in fact, held to a higher standard of maintenance than the Ely’s because the Martin property was subject to Ames’s rental code. 

Spot zoning.  The Court dismissed the Ely’s final issue of spot zoning by observing that illegal spot zoning results when “like tracts or similar lots are subject to reclassification” without reasonable grounds for treating the subject property differently.  “If a [city council or county board] could determine the subject property is distinguishable from the surrounding area [the court] will uphold its decision.”  The facts that the property had historical and cultural significance to Ames, and that it was a legal nonconforming residence in a residential structure were sufficient grounds for a zoning classification different from its surrounding properties.

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