by Gary Taylor
Iowa Court of Appeals, December 7, 2022
The Fettkethers requested rezoning of 12 1/2 acres of property from A-1 agricultural district to R-2 suburban residence district. On July 27, 2020 the Grundy County Planning and Zoning Commission considered the request, and after reviewing the application materials and listening to the Fettkethers and comments from the public voted unanimously to recommend denial of the request. On August 24, after proper notice was published, the Board of Supervisors (Board) met to consider the request, after which the Board voted 4-1 to deny the rezoning. As is often the case, litigation ensued. Sparing you some of the procedural machinations, the issues raised by the Fettkethers at the Court of Appeals were (1) the failure of the Board to make written findings, (2) the Board’s denial was not supported by substantial evidence, and was illegal, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious.
Standard of judicial review. At the outset, both parties got the court’s standard of review wrong. They cited Bontrager Auto Service, v. Iowa City Board of Adjustment, 748 N.W.2d 483 (Iowa 2008) for the principle that the court should review the Boards findings de novo (translation: anew, without reference to any legal conclusion or assumption made by the previous court or other decision-making body); however, Bontrager was a review of a decision by a zoning board of adjustment, the standards for which are set out in Iowa Code chapter 414. In this case, which was a review of a rezoning decision by an elected body, “a court’s scope of review is limited…[to a] review for the correction of errors at law.” A court should only overturn if the decision “violates a statute, is not supported by substantial evidence, or is unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious.”
Written findings of fact. Again relying on Bontrager, the Fettkethers were “adamant in their claim the Board must make written findings of fact.” Again, however, the reliance on Bontrager was misplaced. Iowa courts have never extended the requirement for written findings of fact in board of adjustment cases to a board of supervisors’ legislative proceedings. “The comment-argument format cannot be confused with the evidentiary-adjudicatory hearing found in the board of adjustment setting, where findings and conclusions are mandatory.”
Substantial evidence. The Fettkethers contended there was not substantial evidence to support the rezoning denial because without written findings of fact “no [substantial evidence decision] can withstand appellate scrutiny”; however, having dispensed with the written findings argument already, the court found the record complete. It then moved on to examine the record in light of the standards of review for rezonings that by now should be etched in all our minds:
Zoning decisions are entitled to a strong presumption of validity.
A party challenging a zoning decision bears the burden of showing the decision was unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious or discriminatory, with no reasonable relationship to the promotion of public health, safety, or welfare.
The court will not substitute its judgment for that of the zoning authority. Thus, if the reasonableness of the zoning decision is fairly debatable and the decision is facially valid, the court will not interfere with the [Board’s] action.
The court found that the Board considered concerns related to traffic, dust, safety, character of the area, preservation of habitat, preservation of agricultural land, location of the development, and access through a narrow bridge. It also found that the Board considered the county’s comprehensive plan and found that the Fettkethers’ proposal was contraindicated by at least two of the policies designed to protect high quality farmground. Thus, the Fettkethers did not meet their burden of showing the Board’s decision was unreasonable, illegal, arbitrary or capricious.