Courts Defer to Staff and Board of Adjustment Interpretation of Code

by Eric Christianson

Doss and Huffer vs. Ames Zoning Board of Adjustment
Iowa Court of Appeals, February 22, 2017

The City of Ames received a complaint that Angela Doss and Duane Huffer were building a fence in violation of the city’s zoning ordinance. The fence was 6 feet high and located in their backyard abutting other residential properties. The city determined that the fence was indeed in violation of the following section of code and notified the homeowners in a letter.

The maximum height of fences in any setback abutting a street right-of-way is four (4) feet, except that up to six (6) feet of fence is allowed in any side or rear setback if:

(a) The lot does not abut the front yard of any other residential property along the same side of the street;
(b) The fence is at least (5) feet from the property line abutting a street right-of-way.

-Ames City Ordinance § 29.408(2).

The homeowners appealed staff’s decision to the Ames zoning board of adjustment. The board unanimously denied the homeowners’ appeal. The homeowners appealed to district court alleging:

  1. the Board misinterpreted the ordinance because it was not clear on its face whether the semicolon between (a) and (b) meant “and” (conjunctive) rather than “or” (disjunctive);
  2. the city enforced the ordinance inconsistently, only in response to complaints;
  3. the city’s delay before sending the December letter precluded enforcement on procedural grounds and laches;
  4. the city’s interpretation of the ordinance creates a notice issue in violation of due process; and
  5. the city’s fence ordinance conflicts with Iowa’s partition-fence law.

The district court ruled that the partition-fence issue was not preserved for its review and resolved the four other issues in favor of the board of adjustment.

The homeowners appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals. The court cited an earlier decision that, “the court may not substitute its decision for that of the board.” The decision of the board of adjustment is given a strong presumption of validity. In all other issues as well, the court affirmed the holding of the district court.

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