Dangerous Conditions Cause Mobile Home Park to Lose Legal Nonconforming Status **Decision overturned**

The decision discussed below has been overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. 

This post will be left as it was, but please read the Iowa Supreme Court’s Ruling on Des Moines v. Odgen for an update to the case.

by Eric Christianson

Des Moines v. Ogden
Iowa Court of Appeals, June 7, 2017

Frank Ogden owns and operates a nonconforming mobile home park on the south side of Des Moines. He purchased the property in 2013 from his uncle. The property consists of a narrow u-shaped access road with mobile homes around the interior and exterior of this road. Although the 1953 Des Moines zoning ordinance prohibited mobile home parks in the city, the owner of the property obtained a certificate of occupancy for the mobile home park in 1955. The historical record is not clear, but its use as a mobile home park dates back to some time between 1947 and 1955.

The best record documenting historical use is an aerial photograph from 1963. The photograph depicts “permanent homes that are in close proximity to each other with additional structures attached to the homes.”

Current photographs depict the property as:

[A] congested, dilapidated, and hazardous jumble of structures. Many of the mobile homes are within feet of each other based on the addition of porches, decks, and living space. Residents park cars throughout the property narrowing portions of the already inadequate access road. Bulk trash items—such as tires, boats, and storage bins—are littered throughout the property. Grills, fences, gardens, and children’s toys also crowd the property.

The city did not issue any warnings or citations regarding the use of the property as a mobile home park until 2014. In 2014, a zoning administrator notified Ogden by letter of numerous violations of the 1955 Des Moines Municipal Code, under which the original certificate of occupancy had been awarded. These included setback violations, failure to maintain the access road, and additions to trailers among other issues. The letter also warned that the park’s violations posed a threat to the health and safety of the occupants.

Ogden did not take any action to remedy the violations. In October 2014, the city sought an injunction to close the park for the above listed violations. At trial the Des Moines Fire Marshall testified that the proximity of the mobile homes and the narrow access road created potentially dangerous conditions for residents.

The trial court found the fact that the occupancy permit was issued is proof enough that the property was in compliance with the above regulations at the time that the legally nonconforming use was established. This means that Ogden had the right to continue his nonconforming use subject to the laws in place in 1955 as long as the nature and character of the use as it existed in 1955 is not changed.

The court held that even under the laws in place in 1955, the certificate of occupancy should be revoked as the park poses a threat to “the safety of life or property”. The court also held that, “’use of [the] property has intensified beyond acceptable limitations’ because the conditions ‘pose a real threat in the event of an emergency.’”

Ogden appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals arguing that the court was wrong to find that the nonconforming use posed a threat to life or property and that the use had been unlawfully expanded. He also argued that estoppel prevents the city from obtaining an injunction.

In addition to procedural questions relevant to this case the Court of Appeals examined the questions of nonconforming use and whether estoppel prevented the city from obtaining an injunction to close the park.

Nonconforming Use A nonconforming use is “one that lawfully existed prior to the time a zoning ordinance was enacted or changed, and continues after the enactment of the ordinance even though the use fails to comply with the restrictions of the ordinance.” A nonconforming use may continue indefinitely until abandoned, but it may not be “enlarged or extended”. The Des Moines Municipal Code adds that a nonconforming use may lose its protected status if discontinuance is “necessary for the safety of life or property”.

The Iowa Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the addition of structures or the expansion of homes in a mobile home park constitutes and an unlawful expansion of the nonconforming use. Other state courts, however, have found that replacing mobile homes with larger models or enlarging existing mobile homes in violation of setback requirements may constitute an unlawful intensification of the nonconforming use.

The Appeals Court found that:

Although this mobile home park has not changed in size or use, the record demonstrates it has grown within its borders in the numbers and location of structures attached to the mobile homes resulting in a narrowing of open space on the roadways and between the homes. […] these changes over a half century have enhanced and intensified the non-conforming use to the point where it is a danger to life and property. […] Ogden’s use of the property is not a lawful intensification of an existing nonconforming use. The present congestion and crowding between structures and narrowing the roadway changes the nature and character of the 1955 non-conforming use and presents a danger to residents and neighbors of the park.

Equitable Estoppel Further, Ogden argued that equitable estoppel bars the city from closing the mobile home park. The Court Defined equitable estoppel as, “a common law doctrine preventing one party who has made certain representations from taking unfair advantage of another when the party making the representations changes its position to the prejudice of the party who relied upon the representations.”

The court states that to prove estoppel Ogden must demonstrate:

  1. a false representation or concealment of material fact by the city,
  2. a lack of knowledge of the true facts by [Ogden],
  3. the city’s intention the representation be acted upon, and
  4. reliance upon the representations by [Ogden] to their prejudice and injury.

The court found that Ogden’s claim failed under the first element of the test. The city’s failure to enforce the zoning ordinance does not amount to false representation or concealment of material fact. The city does not notify property owners of every infraction. Instead the city’s enforcement is triggered by complaints.

The court affirmed the grant of the city’s request for an injunction against Ogden’s use of the property as a mobile home park.

Chief Judge Danilson partially dissented. He argues that the city failed to prove either that the mobile home part exceeded its original non-conforming use or that it poses a threat to the safety of people or property. In his opinion, there is no conclusive evidence of the condition or number of homes in the part in 1955, and the size and use of the park have not changed. He argues that although the condition of the park has likely deteriorated, there are less dramatic ways to improve conditions in the park.

Further, Danilson argues that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the park poses a danger to people or property. The city or fire department have not taken any actions based on unsafe conditions, and the fire chief’s testimony was too general to draw any specific conclusions about the park’s safety.

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