by Melanie Thwing
Johnson v. Cook County
(Minnesota Supreme Court, July 29 2010)
Minnesota Statute § 15.99 subd. 2:
Except as otherwise provided in this section and notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, an agency must approve or deny within 60 days a written request relating to zoning…. Failure of an agency to deny a request within 60 days is approval of the request. If an agency denies the request, it must state in writing the reasons for the denial at the time that it denies the request.
Lance Johnson owns two parcels of land in Cook County, Minnesota. Parcel A is zoned residential and Parcel B is zoned half residential and half commercial. Despite that parcel A is zoned residential, Johnson had a storage shed that was commercially used. On May 15th, 2001 Johnson filed an application to rezone parcel A and half of parcel B to general commercial use.
The county’s planning committee looked at the application during a public meeting in June and recommended to deny the request. In September the Board of Commissioners reviewed the application at a public hearing. After hearing testimony from the public and Johnson the request was denied. The Board did not state in writing any reasons for the denial.
Then in 2005 Rita’s Grandview Ridge submitted an application to rezone a portion of its property from commercial to residential and for a conditional use permit to build a planned unit development. Both applications were granted. In 2006 Johnson brought a declary judgment action arguing that the commission erroneously denied his application and erroneously approved Rita’s. He also argued the denial constituted a taking of property, all under Minnesota Statute § 15.99, subd. 2.
Summary judgment was granted for the county in district court, stating that the denial was “reasonable.” Later, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision in an unpublished decision, stating that the application was automatically approved under § 15.99 because the county failed to state any written reasons for the denial.
The county then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that automatic approval is given only when the application is not acted on within the 60 days. They further argue that the written reasoning is a discretionary function of the statute. Johnson argues that the statute mandates action in writing within 60 days.
In Hans Hagen Homes, Inc v. City of Minnetrista the Supreme Court found that “denial is complete when a city votes to deny the application and adopts a written statement of its reasons for denial, whether or not the city provides notice to the applicant.” Johnson argued that the ruling in Hans Hagen Homes means that denial is not complete until the reasons for denial are provided in writing.
The Court refused to follow Johnson’s reasoning, pointing to a footnote in Hans Hagen Homes that explicitly left the necessity of providing written reasons within 60 days as an open question. The Court affirmed previous cases that held “a statute may contain a requirement but provide no consequence for noncompliance, in which case we regard the statue as directory, not mandatory.” The Court concluded that the “state in writing the reasons for denial” language in § 15.99 is directory because no consequence for failure to comply is provided in the same sentence (i.e., that the 60-day deadline is in the previous sentence, implying that it only applies to the decision itself). The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals.