Iowa Supreme Court overturns loss of nonconforming status for Des Moines mobile home park

by Eric Christianson

Des Moines v. Ogden
Iowa Supreme Court, March 16, 2018

Frank Ogden owns and operates a nonconforming mobile home park on the south side of Des Moines. The property consists of a narrow u-shaped access road with mobile homes around the interior and exterior of this road. The historical record is not clear, but its use as a mobile home park dates back to some time between 1947 and 1955. In 1953 the Des Moines zoning ordinance was modified prohibiting mobile home parks in the R-2 zone in place on the property. In 1955, the owner of the property obtained a certificate of occupancy for the operation of a mobile home park. That certificate of occupancy indicates that the mobile home park was a nonconforming use as to the R-2 zone.

The best record documenting historical use is an aerial photograph from 1963. The photograph depicts “thirty-nine concrete pads with mobile homes situated on them in close proximity to one another. The photograph also shows that some of the homes had additional structures attached to them.” More recent photographs of the property reveal that some residents have added porches, decks, and more living space to their mobile homes.

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 that the issuance of the occupancy permit in 1955 is proof that the property was in compliance with the above regulations when the nonconforming use was established. The court held further that the certificate of occupancy should be revoked as the park poses a threat to “the safety of life or property”.

Ogden appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals. The Iowa Court of Appeals found that the park had:

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.

The appeals court affirmed the grant of the city’s request for an injunction against Ogden’s use of the property as a mobile home park. One judge dissented. Read more about that decision here.

Ogden appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court arguing several points:

  1. The actions of the City to enjoin his use of the mobile home park amount to an unconstitutional taking.
  2. It is not necessary for Ogden to discontinue his legal nonconforming use of the property as a mobile home park for the safety of life and property.
  3. The changes to the property did not expand his legal nonconforming use of the property beyond its authorized nonconforming use.
  4. The doctrine of equitable estoppel bars the City from seeking to enjoin his use of the property as a mobile home park.
  5. The district court erred by excluding the testimony of a resident of the mobile home park.

Unconstitutional Takings Because Ogden did not plead a defense on the basis of a taking at the district court level he waived his unconstitutional takings claim. The claim was not preserved. Iowa Supreme Court therefore did not rule on any regulatory takings claims.

Nonconforming Use The court began by citing its definition of a legal 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.” City of Okoboji v. Okoboji Barz , Inc. […] (Iowa 2008) .

Discontinuance of nonconforming use for the safety of life or property For a city to obtain an injunction requiring compliance with a zoning ordinance it must establish (1) an invasion or threatened invasion of a right, (2) that substantial injury or damages will result unless the request for an injunction is granted; and (3) that there is no adequate legal remedy available.

The Iowa Supreme Court found that the City of Des Moines did not meet this burden. Apart from the testimony of the fire marshal during trial, the city offered little evidence of unsafe conditions on the property. The city had also never cited the property for violations of the fire code, and the first letter of notice of a zoning violation was not sent until 2014.

Nonconforming Use Defense In the case of an established nonconforming use, the burden lies on the city to prove that use exceeds the prior established use.  Property owners have some latitude to change their nonconforming use if those changes are not substantial and do not have adverse effects on the neighborhood. In this case, changes are compared to the state of the part when the certificate of occupancy was issued in 1955. Unfortunately there is no evidence as to the state of the park until the areal photograph from 1963. The City of Des Moines argues that the park must have been in compliance with setbacks and other regulations in 1955 otherwise the certificate would not have been granted. All of the violations visible in the 1963 areal photograph would have occurred between 1955 and 1963. The court finds this argument unpersuasive especially given the fact that the park was not cited for any zoning violations until 2014.

Taking the 1963 photograph as the best approximation of the nonconforming use recognized by the city in 1955. The number and location of the homes is similar to those located on the property today. The court notes that there are in fact less homes in the mobile home park today. The use of the property as a mobile home park today is then not “substantially or entirely different” from its original nonconforming use and is a protected legal nonconforming use.

Ogden’s Additional Claims Because the court found that Ogden’s use of the property as a mobile home park is a legal nonconforming use. The Court did not address equitable estoppel or the exclusion of the testimony of a resident.

 

The Iowa Supreme Court vacated the decision of the court of appeals and reversed the judgment of the district court. Ogden may continue his nonconforming use of the property as a mobile home park.

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