Kansas Court of Appeals strikes down municipal nuisance ordinance

by Gary Taylor

City of Lincoln Center v. Farmway Co-op
(Kansas Court of Appeals, April 12, 2012)

Farmway owns and operates a grain elevator located within the City of Lincoln Center, a small rural farming community in central Kansas. The neighborhood surrounding the Farmway elevator is residential. In December 2008, Farmway applied for a building permit to construct a new grain storage bin adjacent to the existing facility. The new storage bin went into operation on July 14, 2009. From that day forward, nearby residents complained about the increased noise level from the drying fans and the increased grain dust and truck dust in the air. On July 27, 2009, Dawn and Melvin Harlow filed a noise complaint against Farmway. The Harlows described the increased noise levels from the new grain bin and its effect on their everyday life. Other neighbors also complained about the noise, and explained how their yard and vehicles were covered with grain dust and how the operation of the new facility had led to increased health problems.

The Kansas Department of Labor and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment made a total of four visits to the site to investigate and take measurements.  All tests for noise and dust were well within legal limits.  No citations were ever issued.  Nonetheless, on December 9, 2009, the City charged Farmway with violating City ordinances regarding excessive loud noises and nuisances. Count I of the City’s complaint alleged that between July 16, 2009, and December 3, 2009, Farmway willfully, unlawfully, and intentionally did “make, continue, maintain or cause to be made or continue an excessive, unnecessary, unreasonable or unusually loud noise which annoys, disrupts, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of others within the City of Lincoln Center, Lincoln County, Kansas, in violation of [City] ordinance #643.”  Count II alleged that Farmway did “maintain a public nuisance by act or failure to perform a legal duty intentionally causing or permitting a condition to exist which injures or endangers the public health, safety, or welfare, namely the excessive, unnecessary, unreasonable or unusually loud noise, and by causing or permitting excessive air pollution and contamination from grain dust all generated by, for or from the new concrete grain storage bin facility” in violation of ordinance #633.  Farmway was found guilty in municipal court and charged a total of $466 in fines and assessments.  Farmway appealed to district court, where the judge threw out the complaint because “the City’s ordinances provide no guidelines or constraints on those that enforce it. One must guess at the meaning of these ordinances and its application may depend upon those attempting to enforce it.”  The City appealed to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals stated that “in determining whether an ordinance is void for vagueness, two inquiries are appropriate: (1) whether the ordinance gives fair warning to those persons potentially subject to it and (2) whether the ordinance adequately guards against arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”  The court observed that the case fell somewhere in between a long line of cases in which the courts found the ordinances constitutionally deficient because of the complete lack of an objective standard, and another line finding ordinances constitutional because they contained expressly stated-objective standards clarifying the ordinance’s application.  The Lincoln Center ordinance’s use of the word “unreasonable” in describing one type of loud noise “appears to be an attempt at creating an objective standard”; however, the court concluded that the noise ordinance “does not give fair warning to those potentially subject to its reach because there are no objective standards imparted.”

[T]he critical piece of the Lincoln ordinance is … the fact that it only applies where the noise “either annoys, disrupts, injures or endangers” the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of others within the City. It is the ordinance’s application language that makes it vague. There is no objective standard by which to judge whether the complainants have reasonable grounds to complain about the noise either annoying, disrupting, injuring, or endangering them. We agree with the district court that this language fails to provide an objective standard. The absence of an objective standard subjects the defendant to the particular sensibilities of the complainant, not something that is geared toward a “reasonable sensibility” standard. Consequently, the ordinance does not adequately guard against arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement….

We find there is no reason that the City cannot enact a more specific ordinance to proscribe the objectionable conduct involving dust and industrial noise and provide constitutionally acceptable objective standards for consideration of the conduct. We realize that small farm towns depend on the agricultural economy for its survival and vice versa…. However…if dust and industrial noise present a public nuisance, then it lies within the power of the City to enact an ordinance specifically prohibiting such nuisance and defining objective standards to give anyone subject to its criminal penalties fair warning for what conduct will be prosecuted.

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