Linn County’s denial of ag exemption upheld by Iowa Supreme Court. Subtitle: “A residential tail wagging a farmland dog”

by Gary Taylor

Lang v. Linn County Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Supreme Court, March 29, 2013)

The Court of Appeals case from which this appeal originated is here.  The Supreme Court provided an extensive set of facts that gives readers a more complete picture of the situation.  Space does not permit a complete review here, other than to say that the facts illustrate Lang’s creative attempts to gain an ag exemption for several parcels with houses he developed subsequent to his subdivision of his original 49-acre tract.  The reader is strongly urged to review the Supreme Court opinion for a detailed factual background.

Supreme Court’s legal analysis.  The Supreme Court began by pointing out the differences between the statutory language of the ag exemption as it was originally adopted, and as it appears today.

Iowa Code 335.2 Prior to 1963:

No regulation or ordinance adopted under the provisions of this act shall be construed to apply to land, farm houses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings, structures, or erections which are adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes as a primary means of livelihood, while so used.

Today (after 1963):

Except to the extent required to implement section 335.27, no ordinance adopted under this chapter applies to land, farm houses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings or structures which are primarily adapted, by reason of nature and area, for use for agricultural purposes, while so used.

The amendment put the focus of the exemption on whether the “land, farm houses, farm barns, farm outbuildings or other buildings or structures” are “primarily adapted” for the asserted agricultural purpose, when considering the “nature and area.”  It turned the focus away from the use of the property as a “primary means of livelihood” for the landowner.  Thus the amount of income generated for the landowner by agricultural activities, as a percentage of the landowner’s total income, is no longer the focus.

However, the legislature at the same time added the requirement that the property be “primarily” adapted to agricultural use. In our view, this authorizes the county to deny the farmhouse exemption when the record, as here, indicates that the agricultural activities are basically a sideline designed to obtain an agricultural zoning exemption for the owners’ residence. The Board was entitled to look at the relative size, value, and construction date of the house compared to the scope, value, and duration of the claimed agricultural activities. For example, we do not believe the legislature intended to allow a homeowner to avoid county zoning requirements simply by having a tomato patch in his or her backyard….[We believe]  that the “primarily adapted” test allows county zoning authorities to consider the overall importance and underlying purpose of the agricultural activities in question.

“In our view, the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) could reasonably conclude that the Langs’ large, manorial residence on the 6.52 acres was a residential tail wagging a farmland dog and that the property as a whole was not primarily dedicated to agriculture. Although the Langs had recently planted small trees, they could not be expected to mature for many years and could be viewed as having an aesthetic purpose. Photographs indicated that the other claimed farming activities were not substantial in scope, even relative to the size of the parcel. The Langs presented no evidence of actual production, beyond the bare claims they made in their application for an agricultural exemption.”  The Lang’s claimed that the county improperly applied a minimum acreage test and flunked the Langs’ primary residence on a 6.52-acre parcel simply because it was not big enough; however the Supreme Court disagreed, noting that the “zoning administrator’s report, the recording of the 2004 ZBA hearing, and the ZBA’s 2-2 decision all indicate that the county did not summarily reject the application based on parcel size.  This is not to say that the size of the parcel should not be a consideration.  “If size were not relevant, then nothing could prevent a developer from obtaining a zoning exemption for an entire development subdivided into half-acre lots so long as some agricultural product were planted in the development and tended by the homeowners.”

Because the Linn County Zoning Ordinance prohibits more than one dwelling on a single undivided parcel of land, the Langs sought an agricultural exemption for a second house built on a 43.3-acre tract of land.  The second house was occupied by Langs’ son.  The Court observed that “regardless of the status of the land, Iowa Code 335.2 anticipates that a county may consider whether a specific building or structure [on the land] is primarily adapted for use for agricultural purposes.”   The Court found that substantial evidence existed to support the ZBA’s finding that the second house under the son’s tenancy would not be “primarily adapted” for agricultural purposes.  Referencing an Ohio Court of Appeals case, the Court stated that “When landowners build an additional house on their land, rent it out, and then want to claim it as another exempt farmhouse, it is appropriate for the county to ask how much time the tenants of the house spend on farming activities. Otherwise, a farmer could erect multiple homes and avoid county zoning simply by assigning nominal farm tasks to an occupant of each home.”

The Court concluded by observing that “the Langs’ construction of various homes on what began as one property had the potential to cause problems for third parties down the road. When a house has been erected by taking advantage of an agricultural exemption, but then is later sold to a person who is not engaged in agriculture, as occurred in this case with respect to [one of the houses on a subdivided parcel], the house becomes a nonconforming use, which limits the new owner’s ability to modify or, if necessary, to rebuild the house.

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