Delay that doomed wind farm project did not give rise to substantive due process claim

by Rachel Greifenkamp and Gary Taylor

CEnergy-Glenmore Wind Farm #1, LLC v. Town of Glenmore
(Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 7, 2014)

In Glenmore, Wisconsin, CEnergy planned to develop a wind farm. CEnergy obtained a conditional use permit from the town but did not obtain the required building permits for the wind turbines. CEnergy had entered into a power purchase agreement with the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation to sell wind energy for 20 years; however, the agreement was contingent upon CEnergy satisfying a variety of requirements, including obtaining all necessary permits, by March 1, 2011.

In September of 2010 the applications for the building permits to build the turbines were submitted to the Town Board.  In December 2010, CEnergy had provided all necessary information for the permits and informed the Chair of the Board that the permits would need to be approved by March 1 for CEnergy to satisfy the power purchase agreement. Over the course of the next three months, public sentiment had turned decidedly against the project, with the Board Chair receiving threats to his physical safety.  The Board did not take up the the issue of the building permits at the January or February meetings, ostensibly because the town’s attorney needed more time to review the documentation submitted by CEnergy.   The applications for building permits were finally considered and granted at a meeting on March 7, but citizens at that meeting became “accusatory and threatening” toward Board members and other town officials.  The Chair reopened the meeting and, after further discussion, the Board voted to rescind the granted permits.  One week later, however, the Board held a special meeting and nullified the rescission, thereby reinstating the granted permits.

When the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation backed out of the power purchase agreement due to CEnergy’s failure to obtain the necessary permits in time, CEnergy filed suit against the Town of Glenmore claiming a denial of its right to substantive due process and a violation of the town’s state law obligation to deal in good faith. The federal district court dismissed the due process claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the district court also declined to retain jurisdiction over the supplemental state law claim. CEnergy appealed the decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On the issue of the denial to substantive due process, the Court of Appeals noted that while both the Supreme Court and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals have acknowledged the possibility that a land-use decision could constitute a deprivation of property without substantive due process of the law, neither have definitively concluded such. However, like the district court, the Court of Appeals concluded that the substantive due process claim fails because the Board’s actions were not arbitrary.  “As far as the Constitution is concerned, popular opposition to a proposed land development plan is a rational and legitimate reason for a legislature to delay making a decision….The idea in zoning cases is that the due process clause permits municipalities to use political methods to decide.”  While the courts have stated the substantive due process standard in many ways – decisions must “shock the conscience,” be “egregious,” “arbitrary and capricious,” or “random and irrational” – the Board’s decision making process did not meet any of the tests.

The Court of Appeals further held that CEnergy’s claim must fail because it did not seek recourse under state law. The court has held in the past that a plaintiff who ignores potential state law remedies cannot state a substantive due process claim in federal court.  The standard process for obtaining a building permit in Glenmore involves submitting the request to the Town Zoning Administrator and then, if denied, bringing the request to the Board of Appeals. This typical process does not involve the Town Board at all. Because CEnergy went along with the political process and did not seek another administrative course of action to get their building permits approved, there is no opportunity for them to regain the lost profits from the wind farm.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in favor of the Town of Glenmore.

 

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