Application to heritage preservation commission for a certificate of appropriateness is a “written request relating to zoning” under Minnesota zoning law

by Kaitlin Heinen

500, LLC v. City of Minneapolis
(Minnesota Supreme Court, September 25, 2013)

500, LLC owns a building at 500 N 3rd St. in Minneapolis and would like to develop the building into an office. 500 submitted a site plan application to the City in September 2008, which the Minneapolis City Council approved. Before reviewing the application, however, the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission nominated the property for designation as a local historical landmark, which placed the property “under ‘interim protection,’ which prohibits ‘destruction or inappropriate alteration [of a nominated property] during the designation process’ in the absence of a ‘certificate of appropriateness.'” (Minneapolis, Minn., Code of Ordinances §§ 599.240, 599.320) So 500 submitted an application for a certificate of appropriateness on May 6, 2009, but the City Council denied the application on July 31, 2009. Ten months later, the City Council approved a resolution designating the property as a local historical landmark, which became final and effective in June 2010.

In October 2010, 500 filed this action against the City, alleging that the City Council “violated…§ 15.99, subd. 2(a), because it failed to approve or deny the application for a certificate of appropriateness within 60 days.” Such failure results in automatic approval at the end of the 60-day period. So 500 requested “judgment that its ‘application for [a] certificate of appropriateness [was] approved and granted by operation of law.'” The district court held that Minn. Stat. § 15.99, subd. 2(a) did not apply because “decisions regarding historic preservation are not brought into or linked in logical or natural association with actual zoning decisions.” The court of appeals affirmed on the grounds that “[b]ecause an application for a certificate of appropriateness was a request to ‘make alterations to the property,’ not to conduct a specific use of the land, the court concluded that an ‘application for a certificate of appropriateness is not a request relating to zoning.'”

The question before the court is whether an application to a heritage-preservation commission for a certificate of appropriateness is a “written request relating to zoning” under Minn. Stat. § 15.99, subd. 2(a). If so, the City had only 60 days to “approve or deny” the application submitted by 500, otherwise automatic approval occurs by operation of law. The court must first determine whether the statute is ambiguous. Minn. Stat. § 15.99 subd. 2(a) does not define “relating to” or “zoning,” so the court must apply their plain and ordinary meanings. “Relating to” means “to bring into…association with,” and the court defines “zoning” as “the regulation of ‘building development and uses of property.'” These definitions together indicate that the statute is unambiguous because it “refers to a written request that has a[n] association…to the regulation of building development of the uses of property.” Within this meaning, the 60-day time limit in § 15.99 subd. 2(a) applies.

The City argued that the statute only referred to “those requests…explicitly authorized by an applicable zoning ordinance or statute.” The court disagreed because the City’s interpretation fails to apply the plain and ordinary meaning of “relating to.” Though considered “broad” by the United States Supreme Court, the City’s interpretation of “relating to” conflicts with the court’s requirement “to give meaning to every word and phrase in a statute.” Additionally, the City’s interpretation adds words of limitation. The association mentioned in the statute is to zoning itself, not zoning specifically authorized by zoning ordinances or statutes. Thus the court held that the City’s interpretation of § 15.99 subd. 2(a) is unreasonable.

For 500’s application for a certificate of appropriateness to qualify “as a written request relating to zoning,” the application must have an association with the regulation of building development and the uses of property. The court concluded there to be such an association. First, the heritage-preservation proceedings are associated with zoning because they are similar to hearings on conditional use permits. A certificate of appropriateness affects specific property rights, without which approval of by the Commission or City Council 500 cannot develop the building into an office. This requirement is typical of a zoning restriction. Second, the historic-preservation-enabling laws recognize an association between heritage preservation and zoning. The Minnesota Historic District Act allows municipalities to establish commissions with “the power to provide special zoning conditions for…historic districts” and to “amend zoning ordinances to encompass…historic districts in zoning legislation.” (Minn. Stat. §138.74) These commissions can also approve “use variances to a zoning ordinance.” (Minn. Stat. § 471.193 subd. 3(6)) These laws point towards a definitive association between historic preservation and zoning.

Finally, the City’s heritage-preservation ordinances identify an association an application for a certificate of appropriateness and zoning. “Before issuing a certificate of appropriateness, the Commission must find that any proposed alteration is ‘consistent with the applicable policies of the comprehensive plan.'” “Zoning ordinances implement the policies and goals of the comprehensive plan.” The president of the planning commission even opposed 500’s application because the proposed development was inconsistent with the City’s comprehensive plan, which further supports that an application for a certificate of appropriateness is “a written request relating to zoning.” Having established this, the City failed to approve or deny 500’s application within 60 days, so the court reversed and remanded the case to order the granting of the certificate of appropriateness.

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