Minnesota Supreme Court adopts restrictive interpretation of “unnecessary hardship”

GT NOTE:  This is an interesting case for Iowa planners and board of adjustment members because the Minnesota Supreme Court is interpreting variance language in the Minnesota statutes that is identical to that found in the Iowa Code.  They reach the same conclusions as previous Iowa court cases.

by Melanie Thwing

Krummenacher v. City of Minnetonka
(Supreme Court of Minnesota, June 24, 2010)

JoAnne Liebeler owns property in Minnetonka, MN. There is a detached garage on the property, which sits 17 ft from the property line. Minnetonka City Code §300.10 states that a detached garage must be set at least 50 feet from the property line, but the structure was built before this ordinance and thus grandfathered in. In March 2008, a variance was filed by Liebeler, which is required by Minnesota Stat. to add a living space above the nonconforming garage.

A public hearing occurred in March where her neighbor, Krummenacher, spoke against the variance. He argued that this addition obstructed his view. The request was ultimately approved with the planning commission stating: 1.) an undue hardship would occur without it, 2.) a unique circumstance of nonconformity,  3.) compliance with the intent of the ordinance, and 4.) the variance would not alter the neighborhood character.

Krummenacher challenged the Commissions decision with the City Council, who ultimately sided with the Commission. Krummenacher then filed an appeal in district court, which affirmed, and the Court of Appeals, which also affirmed. Finally he appealed to the Supreme Court of Minnesota.

He argued that 1.) Minnesota Stat. § 462.357 does not allow the City to grant a variance that would expand a nonconforming use, 2.) the approval was arbitrary and 3.) the district court erred because they did not require the City to produce additional documents.

Krummenacher first argues that Minnesota Stat. § 462.357 1(e) does not allow the expansion of a nonconforming use. The statute itself states in part A. that any nonconforming use in place before the statute may continue to be used but not expanded. However, part B. states that they may permit expansion to, “prevent, and abate nuisances and to protect the public health, welfare, or safety.” Section B. also grants cities discretion to issue permits.

The Supreme Court looks at Minnetonka City Code § 300.29(g)(1) which allows for expansion as long as a variance is obtained. Because the State entrusted the power within the city to issue permits, and because Liebeler did this, the City was within its authority to consider a variance for a nonconforming use.

Next, Krummenacher argues that the decision was arbitrary because the correct standard to define “undue hardship” was not applied. He argues that the standard in Minnesota Stat. § 462.357 subd. 6., requires proof of the property not being usable, that the landowner is in a difficult spot because the structure was in place before the property was bought, and the essential character of the neighborhood would not be altered.

The City urged that the “reasonable manner” standard set forth in the Minnesota Court of Appeals case of Rowell v. Board of Adjustment of Moorhead. was used, and is an appropriate interpretation of state law.  It claimed the variance was a reasonable request because of the overall topography of the land. The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, declined to follow the lead of the Court of Appeals in Rowell.  It pointed out that the plain language states that the property must show that it cannot be put to “reasonable use” without the variance.  The Supreme Court looked to a decision in Stadsvold where they defined the difference between “undue hardship” which applies to Minnesota municipalities, and “practical difficulties” which applies to area variances in Minnesota counties. This distinction does not leave any room for the “reasonable manner” standard from Rowell. Instead the precedent from Curry v. Young is the correct to use, which establishes a more rigorous standard for “undue hardship.”  Thus the “reasonable manner” standard used by the City, although it has been used for over 20 years, cannot continue to be used.  The Court explained:

We recognize that the Rowell “reasonable manner” standard represents a longstanding interpretation of the undue hardship standard in Minn. Stat. § 462.357, subd. 6, and that Minnesota municipalities have been granting variances under the “reasonable manner” standard for many years. We also recognize that our decision will result in a restriction on a municipality’s authority to grant variances as compared with the “reasonable manner” standard. But whatever value we may find in a more flexible standard, particularly with regard to area variances, we cannot ignore the plain language of the statute. See State v. Peck, 773 N.W.2d 768, 773 (Minn. 2009) (“We have no opportunity to ignore part of the legislature’s definition.”). We are unable to interpret the statutory language to mean anything other than what the text clearly says—that to obtain a municipal variance, an applicant must establish that “the property in question cannot be put to a reasonable use if used under conditions allowed by the official controls.” Minn. Stat. § 462.357, subd. 6. Therefore, unless and until the legislature takes action to provide a more flexible variance standard for municipalities, we are constrained by the language of the statute to hold that a municipality does not have the authority to grant a variance unless the applicant can show that her property cannot be put to a reasonable use without the variance.

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