Conditional rezoning agreement limits processing and retail sales to deer season

by Kaitlin Heinen and Gary Taylor

Patricia D. and Michael P. Fowler v. Muscatine County Board of Supervisors
(Iowa Court of Appeals, October 23, 2013)

Patricia and Michael Fowler asked the Muscatine County Zoning Commission to rezone their property from A-1 agricultural to C-1 commercial, to permit the operation of a seasonal deer processing facility and retail counter. The Fowlers executed an agreement that restricted the property’s use to “[o]nly wild game processing….[r]etail products in the wild game category…and supporting wild game products….” This agreement included a description of “Steve’s Meat Shop” and its products. Once executed, the commission recommended that the Muscatine County Board of Supervisors approve the zoning request, which the board did, passing an ordinance that rezoned the Fowlers’ property accordingly.

The Fowlers petitioned to have their property rezoned again to “add service of ready-to-eat food,” such as hot sandwiches. The commission recommended that the board deny this request; the board did so. The Fowlers sought to annul and vacate the board’s denial of their application in district court. The board resisted, and additionally argued that retail services could only be offered seasonally. The district court allowed the retail services to be conducted year-round, but denied the Fowlers’ request to include “ready-to-eat foods” or a “deli shop.” Both the Fowlers and the board appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The issues before the court in this case include: “(1) whether an ordinance that rezoned certain agricultural property to a commercial classification authorized the operation of a year-round retail establishment and (2) whether the retail establishment could sell ready-to-eat foods.”

The court initially observed that if an “ordinance is plain and its meaning is clear,” the court cannot search for meaning beyond those express terms. However, if the “ordinance is ambiguous, it is appropriate to apply the general rules of construction for statutes.” The board argued the “conditional rezoning agreement contains ‘no reference to year-round retail service,’” so the district court erred in the absence of such words to interpret. The Fowlers countered that the conditional rezoning agreement contains no time restrictions for the retail services, so the district court correctly concluded that they could operate year-round.

Both parties rely on the preamble of the ordinance—“the Property is…to be used as a seasonal deer processing and retail service.” The board argued “the term ‘seasonal’ ‘unambiguously and undeniably places limits on the privileges conferred by the spot zoning.’” The Fowlers countered the term “requires deer processing to occur on a seasonal basis but does not limit ‘retail service.’” The court reasoned that these competing arguments in regards to the term “seasonal” meant that there was ambiguity in the ordinance.

When confronted with an ambiguity, we may consider, among other factors: (1) the object sought to be attained (2) the circumstances under which the statute was enacted, (3) the legislative history, (4) the common law or former statutory provisions, (5) the consequences of a particular construction, (6) the administrative construction of the statute, and (7) the preamble or statement of policy.

The court examined the circumstances surrounding the ordinance’s passage. “At the first meeting with the zoning commission, Michael Fowler explained his reasoning for his rezoning request as follows: ‘[W]hat we’d like to do is to have a seasonal deer processing. We’d like to have a small retail counter that would just be open between October and January.’” Further, when asked whether the retail services would only be open during that period, he replied, “Yeah, deer season.” This resolves the ambiguity of the term “seasonal,” and thus the court concluded the Fowlers’ retail services were to operate seasonally. The court reversed the district court’s judgment in this part.

As for the second issue, the Fowlers argued the court erred in concluding they could not sell ready-to-eat foods at their retail counter. They contended that “retail service” encompasses the sale of ready-to-eat foods. However, the conditional rezoning agreement authorizes them to “prepare products for resale.” The court agreed with the district court that the conditional rezoning agreement did not authorize the sale of deli-style sandwiches that could not “be considered wild game specialty items.” In his statements to the zoning commission, “Michael Fowler stated that the retail store would be limited to wild game, ‘nothing domestic, like beef or pork.’” In addition, “Patricia Fowler explained that deer meat would be bought from a farmer and then sold to the customers.” These statements conclude that the retail service does not encompass ready-to-eat foods. The court affirmed the district court’s judgment in this part.

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