Issue preclusion can be applied to bar zoning board proceedings, but applicants for 1998 and 2011 special exceptions were different

by Gary Taylor

Prybil Family Investments, Ltd., v. Board of Adjustment of Iowa City
(Iowa Court of Appeals, September 5, 2013)

In July 2011 Streb Construction Company filed an application for a special exception to operate a wet batch concrete plant on land zoned “General Industrial”  in the Scott-Six Industrial Park in Iowa City.  After a public hearing the Iowa City Board of Adjustment (Board) approved the special exception in September 2011.

Prybil Family Investments owns agricultural property adjacent to the land in question.  The land has been used for farming, and will continue to be for the forseeable future. Prybil filed a writ of certiorari to contest the Board’s decision.  Prybil’s main argument was that the same property owner filed an application for a special use permit to operate a cement plant on the same property in 1998, and was denied.  Therefore the doctrine of issue preclusion prevented the Board from considering the 2011 application (issue preclusion prevents the same issue from being reconsidered again in a later proceeding).  Alternatively, Prybil argued that the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The district court disagreed on both claims and allowed the permit to stand.  Prybil appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals began by noting that Iowa case law has never addressed whether the concept of issue preclusion applies to zoning board determinations.  It did acknowledge that in Johnston v. Christenson, the Iowa Supreme Court stated that “an administrative adjudication by an entity such as the board of adjustment can have a preclusive effect in a judicial proceeding..”  It also referenced Am. Jur. 2d, Zoning and Planning, which states that “res judicata (a concept that encompasses issue preclusion) applies to administrative zoning decisions in order to promote finality of decisions unless it is shown that there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the earlier ruling.” The Court, therefore, determined that issue preclusion can be applied to bar a second application for a special exception if the following elements, cited in Johnston v. Christenson, are met: (1) the issue must be identical; (2) the issue must have been raised and litigated in the prior action; (3) the issue must have been material and relevant to the disposition of the prior action; and (4) the determination made in the prior action must have been essential and necessary to the resulting judgment.” “However,” the Court noted, “if there has been a substantial change of circumstances” the concept will not apply.

Before beginning its analysis of the four factors it cited, it determined that, in any event, Prybil’s issue preclusion claim failed because the applicant for the 2011 special exception was not the same as the applicant for the 1998 special exception. Even though “Streb Construction Company” applied for the 2011 permit, and “A.F. Streb” applied for the 1998 permit the Court concluded that “Prybil presented no evidence showing that the parties were identical or [in close legal relation].”  The Court went on, however, to note that Prybi’s claim would also fail on the Christenson factors.  The mobile wet batch plant desired in 2011 incorporates improved environmental protections.  The 2011 and 1998 applications were for different lots in the Industrial Park.

After a lengthy discussion about what issues related to the substantial evidence claim were properly preserved for appeal by Prybil, the Court addressed the substantial evidence claim itself.  Prybil contended that the dust pollution from the plant will interfere with Prybil’s use an enjoyment of its property by damaging crops, but the Court did not disagree with the Board’s conclusion that conditions attached to the special exception – requiring Streb to pave the surrounding roads and plant trees to act as a screen from adjacent properties – were sufficient to satisfy the concern.  Prybil also contended that its property values would be diminished by the plant, but the Court again found sufficient evidence to support the Board’s conclusion that there were no Heavy Industrial zones in Iowa City where the plant could locate by right and any opinions on effect on future property values were merely speculative.  Although Prybil offered contrary testimony from two realtors, the Court said that the information presented at the hearing was sufficient to support the Board’s decision.

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