Iowa Supreme Court Rules that Cities May Take Possession of Abandoned Properties

Cby Eric Christianson

Eagle Grove v. Cahalan Investments
(Iowa Supreme Court, December 1, 2017)

Cahalan Investments purchased two residential properties in the City of Eagle Grove, one in 2002 and the other in 2011. Both properties have remained unoccupied and in deteriorating condition since their purchase. The properties were the subject of multiple complaints by neighbors and were found to be unfit for human occupancy.  In 2014 the city began an effort to clean up a number of nuisance properties, these properties were among those targeted. The city sent several letters to Cahalan advising them that they were in violation of the city’s nuisance ordinance. Cahalan made no effort to abate the nuisance and would later testify that they had no intention of making either property habitable in the foreseeable future

Iowa Code section 657A.10A allows cities to petition a district court to transfer ownership of abandoned properties to the city. The code details the following criteria that a court is to use when determining if a property has been abandoned.

a. Whether any property taxes or special assessments on the property were delinquent at the time the petition was filed.
b. Whether any utilities are currently being provided to the property.
c. Whether the building is unoccupied by the owner or lessees or licensees of the owner.
d. Whether the building meets the city’s housing code for being fit for human habitation, occupancy, or use.
e. Whether the building is exposed to the elements such that deterioration of the building is occurring.
f. Whether the building is boarded up.
g. Past efforts to rehabilitate the building and grounds.
h. The presence of vermin, accumulation of debris, and uncut vegetation.
i. The effort expended by the petitioning city to maintain the building and grounds.
j. Past and current compliance with orders of the local housing official.
k. Any other evidence the court deems relevant.

The code then states that if the court finds the property is abandoned, “the court shall enter judgment awarding title to the city.” In this case, the district court found that Cahalan’s properties were indeed abandoned under the definition set forth in the statute. In fact Cahalan Investments does not dispute this finding; however, Cahalan argued that awarding ownership of these properties to the city without compensation violated the takings clause of the US Constitution. In this case, the district court found Cahalan Investment’s argument convincing and did not award title to the City of Eagle Grove.

The City of Eagle Grove appealed the district court’s decision to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Iowa Supreme Court revisited the question of whether awarding ownership to a city under Iowa Code section 657A.10 is constitutional.

Proving that a section of state code is unconstitutional is not easy. The court quotes an earlier decision stating that, “statutes are cloaked with a presumption of constitutionality. The challenger bears a heavy burden, because it must prove the unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Takings jurisprudence is based primarily on the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment which states that, “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” To determine if a governmental action has violated the takings clause, the court uses the following framework:

(1) Is there a constitutionally protected private property interest at stake? (2) Has this private property interest been “taken” by the government for public use? and (3) If the protected property interest has been taken, has just compensation been paid to the owner?

In this case, Cahalan’s case fails on the first question. The court cites an earlier ruling which states that “the State has the power to condition the permanent retention of [those] property right[s] on the performance of reasonable conditions that indicate a present intention to retain the interest[s].” Ownership of property comes with many rights, but is not absolute. Here the court is saying that in Iowa a property owner’s rights do not include allowing properties to remain abandoned. By doing so here, Cahalan has forfeited their rights.

By allowing the properties to persist in a condition unfit for human habitation, allowing the properties to remain vacant, and failing to make timely and reasonable efforts to remedy the public nuisances created by the properties after notification of the problems, Cahalan did not comply with the section 657A.10A(3) criteria. Thus it failed to “indicate a present intention to retain the interest.” See id. at 526, 102 S. Ct. at 790. We conclude the district court erred in concluding Cahalan holds a constitutionally protected private property interest in the abandoned properties for which just compensation is owed.

Finding that Cahalan Investment’s stake in the properties was not a constitutionally protected right is enough to decide the case, but for completeness the court did examine the second question as well.

Assuming that Cahalan did have a constitutionally protected private property right the court still found that takings jurisprudence supports the city’s actions. A taking occurs when the government denies a property owner “all economically beneficial or productive use” of property. In this case there is no dispute that Cahalan Investments has been deprived of all use of these two properties. Generally when that occurs, the government is required to pay just compensation. However, there is a public nuisance exception in takings jurisprudence. The state has the “power to abate nuisances that affect the public generally, or otherwise,” and this action, “is not a constitutional taking for which compensation is required.”

The court also examined whether the fact that Cahalan Investments purchased these properties before the enactment of this particular section of 657A would prevent it from being applied in this case. Here the court found that the state’s existing legislation as well as the principles of nuisance law already in place at the time of purchase were sufficient to hold that Cahalan never possessed the right to maintain properties in an abandoned state.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed the finding of the district court that the city’s exercise of 657A constituted an unconstitutional taking and remanded the case back to district court.

3 thoughts on “Iowa Supreme Court Rules that Cities May Take Possession of Abandoned Properties

  1. Isn’t the building the nuisance and isn’t there a constitutionally protected private property interest in the land the building is located on?
    Once the nuisance building is abated somehow that should be the end of it. The legislature has just enacted a cash machine that only requires a building be vacant and the city fills in the rest with pretext claims of “conditions” not specific housing code violations not having been complied with, and that the owner has never heard about until in court.

  2. If the entire case has been studied you find out the owners knew about all of the efforts of the City to not only deal with the buildings but also the ground the buildings sat on. This is a great tool for cities to use when dealing with owners that think they do not have to take any of the responsibility that comes with ownership. To think the city owes them anything for a property that devalues the area is ludicrous. If the city tears down the building and assess the costs to the land it becomes a loss for the taxpayers.

  3. L Caston if you studied the case you would see that you don’t have all the facts straight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Archives

Categories