Monona County’s rezoning of property along Loess Hills Scenic Byway did not constitute illegal spot zoning

by Gary Taylor

Woodward and Johnson v. Monona County Board of Supervisors
(Iowa Court of Appeals, November 15, 2012)

Cory Bumann purchased 2.8 acres of land in rural Monona County with the intent of constructing a bar and restaurant to serve tourist traffic coming to enjoy the Loess Hills. The land is located at the corner of the paved county road L-20 – which is a segment of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway – and the gravel road 153rd Street. Across county road L-20 (approximately 1/2- to 3/4-mile away), but not accessible directly by L-20, is the Timber Ridge Winery and Vineyard, which is owned by other members of the Bumann family. Timber Ridge does not have a bar or restaurant, but serves breakfast for approximately 400 guests on the weekends in the summer.  Timber Ridge also bike and ATV trails, and a campground.  The land that is the subject of this litigation is connected to Timber Ridge, across L-20, by a dirt path.

Bumann requested rezoning of the land in question from agriculture to a classification that would allow for a bar and a restaurant.  The county planning and zoning commission was unable to reach a recommendation, and forwarded a “split recommendation” to the board of supervisors.  on May 25, 2010 the board of supervisors approved the rezoning request.  Woodward and Johnston (plaintiffs), area landowners, challenged the decision as a case of illegal spot zoning.  The district court agreed and invalidated the rezoning.  Monona County appealed the decision.

After noting that a board of supervisor’s decision regarding a rezoning carries with it a strong presumption of validity, the Court of Appeals reviewed the relevant Iowa caselaw pertaining to spot zoning:

Spot zoning occurs when an ordinance creates a small island of property with restrictions on its use that are different from those imposed on surrounding property…. While spot zoning is not favored, it is not automatically illegal…. Spot zoning is valid if it passes a three-pronged test.  The court must determine (1) whether the new zoning is germane to an object within the police power; (2) whether there is a reasonable basis for making a distinction between the spot zoned land and the surrounding property; and (3) whether the rezoning is consistent with the comprehensive plan.

The district court found that the rezoning decision passed the first and third prongs, but failed the second.  The Court of Appeals confined its review to the second prong; plaintiffs did not challenge the district court’s conclusions with regard to the other two.

The Court of Appeals noted that to determine whether there is a reasonable basis for making a distinction between the spot zoned land and the surrounding property it must look at several factors:

Size of spot zoned and uses of surrounding property.   The county zoning administrator testified that the closest commercially zoned property was two to five miles away. The land surrounding the property on all sides was zoned for agriculture, but Timber Ridge had a special use permit to allow recreational uses such as a private campground and dirt-bike riding.  Plaintiffs land was farmland and timberland, but the county comprehensive plan did not identify the Loess Hills region as prime agricultural land.  One county supervisor testified that Timber Ridge at one time had a restaurant and bar that has since closed down.  Another supervisor testified that he considered the rezoned property and Timber Ridge to be similar in that they were gathering places.

Changing conditions of the area.  It was unclear from evidence at trial whether the extensive tourism promotion of the Loess Hills region was a recent occurrence, but the comprehensive plan specifically designating the Loess Hills as such was adopted in 2007.  L-20 had been paved for 20-25 years, and Timber ridge had been located in the area for much longer than that.

Uses to which subject property has been put.  Plaintiffs testified that the land in question previously had been used for row crops, but other testimony contradicted that.  It was recognized that the land was not prime agricultural land, but also that the site would have to be leveled for a bar to be constructed.

Suitability and adaptability for various uses.  County supervisors testified that the property’s location along the Scenic Byway on a paved road, its proximity to Timber Ridge, and favoring a location that was not prime agricultural land made this property suitable for a restaurant.

The district court found that the second prong was not satisfied because the paving of L-20 and the proximity to Timber Ridge were not recent occurrences, and that any land bordering L-20 would be equally suited for a restaurant and bar; however, the Court of Appeals pointed out that the district court is only to look to see if there has been a sufficient showing to reasonably support the board of supervisor’s judgment. The court is not to supersede the county’s discretion just because the court would reach a different conclusion.  Finding that there was a reasonable basis to support the county’s rezoning decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court.

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