by Gary Taylor
US Cold Storage, Inc. v. City of LaVista
(Nebraska Supreme Court, March 29, 2013)
In 1969, the owner of a 210-acre parcel in Sarpy County petitioned the Sarpy County Board of Commissioners to designate the tract as an industrial area and the board complied. Under Nebraska law an industrial area is land “used or reserved for the location of industry.” At the time of the designation, La Vista’s zoning jurisdiction did not reach any part of the parcel; therefore the city’s approval was not required. US Cold Storage acquired four lots in the industrial area in 1971 and has operated its business there since that time. Sanitary and Improvement District (SID) 59 was created in 1971 to provide utilities and services to the industrial area. The area of SID 59 is greater than, but includes, the entire industrial area. In October 2009 La Vista resolved to annex SID 59. It sent written notices to the property owners within SID 59 of an October 22 city planning commission public hearing on the proposed annexation. On November 3, La Vista sent written notice to the property owners within SID 59 of a November 17 city council hearing also regarding the annexation of SID 59. On December 1, after conducting the public hearings, La Vista approved an ordinance purporting to annex SID 59 in its entirety.
On December 16, 2009, Cold Storage filed a class action complaint against La Vista and SID 59 challenging the validity of ordinance 1107. The complaint alleged that ordinance 1107 was invalid because (1) La Vista failed to comply with statutory notice requirements when adopting it, (2) the annexation was for revenue purposes only, and (3) state law prohibited the annexation of the industrial area in SID 59.
On January 18, 2011, while Cold Storage’s challenge to the validity of ordinance 1107 was pending in district court, La Vista directed its planning commission to consider the annexation of only a portion of SID 59; specifically, that portion that did not include the industrial area. On April 19, after giving proper statutory notice of this proposed annexation, La Vista adopted an ordinance (ordinance 1142) purporting to annex the portion of SID 59 that did not include the industrial area. SID 59 filed a cross claim in the initial action, and asserted that ordinance 1142 was invalid. The district court found in favor of La Vista on all claims, and Cold Storage and SID 59 appealed.
Statutory notice claim. It was undisputed that the notices did not strictly comply with Neb. Rev. Stat. 19-5001 (one was 3 days late, another was 2 days early, along with minor errors). It was also undisputed that SID 59 had actual notice of the annexation proceedings. In siding with La Vista, the court relied on Neb. Rev. Stat. 19-5001(5), which only voids annexation decisions on notice grounds if the errors are “willful or deliberate.”
Annexation for revenue purposes. Caselaw in Nebraska proscribes annexation for revenue purposes only. The court rejected the notion that because the SID was completely built out the city would be incurring no liabilities. The court referred to La Vista’s required annexation plan, which identified the street and sewer improvements the city would become responsible for in the event of annexation, and the the additional police staff needed to patrol the area. The city’s finance manager testified that the city would also assume all debts and obligations of SID 59, including approximately $2.1 million in net bonded debt. The court concluded that although revenue was a factor, but other factors included the indebtedness which the city would assume, the city’s objective of orderly growth, and the perception that annexation of SID 59, which was already surrounded by the city, would improve the provision of services by eliminating jurisdictional issues.
Prohibition against annexation of industrial area. Prior to 1991, Neb. Rev. Stat. 13-1115 only permitted the annexation of an industrial area under two circumstances (neither of which applied in this case); however, in 1991 the law was amended to allow annexation if the industrial area “is located in a county with a population in excess of 100,000 persons and the city did not approve the original designation of the tract as an industrial area.” The court found that both conditions were met in this case. Cold Storage contended that because La Vista could not have annexed the area prior to 1991, a vested right existed to continue the operation of SID 59 without annexation. The court noted that the true nature of the vested right claimed by Cold Storage was the “benefit” of lower taxes accruing from not being subject to taxation by La Vista; however, the court cited numerous cases for the proposition that exemption from taxation is not a vested right. “We find nothing in the language of the pre-1991 version of Neb. Rev. Stat. 13-1115 which would constitute a pledge by the Legislature that the circumstances under which property in an industrial area could be annexed would never be altered by an amendment to the statute.”
The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the district court on all issues.