Court remanded variance case to determine whether board relied on existing nonconforming use when approving variance

by Gary Taylor

Arnburg v. City of Earlham Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, April 30, 2014)

Farmer’s Cooperative (FC) owns a number of grain bins in Earlham, and temporary grain storage bins outside the city limits.  These facilities predate Earlham’s zoning ordinance, and do not conform to existing zoning regulations.  FC purchased land adjacent to its existing operation where it intends to build additional grain bins, and filed an application to have the land rezoned from residential and commercial to “M-Industrial.”  The rezoning request was approved.  Later, FC requested a building permit for the additional grain bins, but was denied by the zoning administrator because the proposed bins would not comply with height or setback requirements.  FC filed a variance request with the Earlham Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) to allow construction of bins with no setbacks, and heights that exceeded the height limitations.  The ZBA approved the variance, but Arnburg [presumably a nearby resident] filed an action in district court.  The district court remanded the case to allow the ZBA to hold an additional hearing and make written findings of fact.

At the rehearing FC presented evidence on the need for a variance, including economic data on the profitability of conforming structures and evidence of an agreement with the city showing that the city intended to ease the concerns of neighboring residents.  Local residents, on the other hand, presented evidence of existing problems with grain dust covering nearby homes and sidewalks, and discussed problems on nearby streets due to heavy truck traffic.  They also alleged that the proposed bins would create a safety hazard due to both their height and proximity to the lot lines.  The ZBA issued an oral and written opinion granting the variance, finding that the residents’ concerns had been addressed by an agreement between the city and FC, that the bins would not alter the character of the city, and that FC’s economic analysis proved the land could not be used profitably without the variance.  The case went back to district court, which affirmed the ZBA’s decision on summary judgment.

At district court Arnburg contended the ZBA acted illegally by allowing for the expansion of a nonconforming use.  The city disagreed that the existing bins are a nonconforming use, and the variance in fact expanded a nonconforming use even if the existing bins were judged to be such.  The Court of Appeals found that, contrary to the determination of the district court, a genuine issue of fact exists in the case that precludes summary judgment.  The Earlham Code concerning variances provides in part that: “no nonconforming use of neighboring lands, structures or buildings in the same district, and no permitted use of lands, structures or buildings in other districts shall be considered grounds for the issuance of a variance.”  In reviewing the ZBA’s findings of fact, the Court of Appeals found conflicting evidence as to whether that language was satisfied.  On the one hand, the ZBA found that the variance would not create a new business, but rather only expand an existing business.  The Court considered this to be evidence that the ZBA was not considering the height or setbacks of the building but rather the business itself.  On the other hand the ZBA also stated as justification for the variance the fact that FC “also has bins that exceed the local ordinance standards presently.”  With both these statements in the ZBA’s findings, the Court found that a genuine issue of material fact existed and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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