Legally sufficient hearing must allow public comment on the underlying reason for the requested zoning amendment

by Hannah Dankbar

Campbell, et al., v. Franklin County and Union Electric Company d/b/a Ameren Missouri
Missouri Supreme Court, February 3, 2015

Multiple individuals joined the Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO) to file a writ of certiorari claiming that Franklin County Commission made errors in their adoption of zoning amendments that would allow Union Electric Company to build an ash-coal landfill next to its power plant in Labadie.

The organization made two claims on appeal: (1) the commission did not conduct a legally sufficient hearing before adopting the zoning amendments that would allow the coal-ash landfill, and (2) the court erred in finding that the zoning amendments were promoting public health, safety and welfare and are therefore valid.

Ameren (the owner of the Labadie Power Plant) publicly announced the proposal to build the coal-ash landfill on the land next to the power plant. The plant is the only public utility power plant in Franklin County and the only possible location for the coal-ash landfill. LEO alleges that the chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission told speakers at the public hearing that they could not discuss Ameren or the proposed site for the landfill, and that county officials “interrupted speakers when they attempted to discuss Ameren’s proposed Labadie landfill site…”  LEO alleges that placing limitations on what the public was allowed to speak about meant that the county had not conduced a legally sufficient hearing.

After LEO filed their petition, the court asked the county to produce records from the meeting. The county did, and the commission and Ameren filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court dismissed the first count of LEO’s petition and determined that the zoning amendments were valid.  LEO appealed.

The Missouri Supreme Court noted that the statute does not expressly provide whether a public hearing is required, nor does it explicitly define what constitutes a “hearing.”   The Court concluded first that it would be “nonsensical” to require public notice of a non-public hearing.  The hearing, therefore, was a public hearing.

Following that is the question whether the public hearing was insufficient because the commission precluded the public from addressing Ameren’s proposed coal-ash landfill.  A dictionary definition of “hearing” is “a session…in which testimony is taken from witnesses,” “an opportunity to be heard to present one’s side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated,” and “a listening to arguments.”  Given the plain language meaning of the word “hearing,” the Court concluded that the legislature intended for members of the public to be able to present their side of the case.  The hearing, therefore, should be conducted so that the public can address the subject matter of the proposed zoning amendments.  Assuming LEO’s allegations are true, the manner in which the hearing was conducted arguably denied the citizens of Franklin County a fair opportunity to be heard and to present their side of the case.  It prevented them from discussing the actual, underlying subject of the amendments.

The Missouri Supreme Court remanded the case to the circuit court to direct the county to hold a legally sufficient hearing.

 

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