Yes, we’re back, and with a case on …. spot zoning

by Gary Taylor

Ely v. City of Ames
(Iowa Court of Appeals, June 30, 2010)

The Elys own a tire and automotive service center on Lincoln Way.  Next door is the Martin House.  From approximately 1920 to the late forties the Martins provided room and board to African-American students attending Iowa State University when the students were denied housing elsewhere.  George Washington Carver, distinguished botanist and the first African American to graduate from Iowa State University, often visited the Martin’s home when he returned to Ames.  The house is also an example of the Craftsman architectural style, and is one of the few remaining houses on Lincoln Way, which has become a major commercial arterial.  The property is zoned “Highway-Oriented Commercial” but exists as a legal nonconforming residential use. 

The Archie and Nancy Martin Foundation submitted an application for Ames to designate the home as an historic landmark.  Over objections by the Elys, the Ames city council approved the designation and rezoned the Martin property as a “Historic Preservation Overlay District.”  The Elys sued, raising issues of (1) procedural due process, (2) equal protection, and (3) spot zoning.  The district court found in favor of the city on all three issues, and the Elys appealed.

Procedural due process.  On the procedural due process claim the Iowa Court of Appeals started by stating the well-settled legal principle that “a person is only entitled to procedural due process when a state action threatens to deprive a person of a protected property or liberty interest.”  The Elys argued that they have a protected interest in maintaining the value of their land, but the Court of Appeals disagreed.  “An abstract desire or expectation of a benefit is not sufficient,” but rather “a property interest is only protected if there is a legitimate claim of entitlement.”  The Court further ventured to state that even if it could somehow be shown that the Elys had protected property interests that were implicated by the historic landmark zoning of the neighboring property, the public hearing at which the rezoning was discussed and decided by the city council gave the Elys sufficient opportunity to be heard to satisfy procedural due process.

Equal protection.  The Elys next claimed that because the historic landmark designation fails to require the Martins to adequately maintain the property, it results in differing treatment between historic landmarks and surrounding properties and thus violates the Ely’s right to equal protection of the law.  The Court dismissed this argument by first recognizing that differing treatment under the law is permissible if parties are not similarly situated.  The Court concluded that promoting preservation of historical and cultural landmarks is a legitimate governmental interest sufficient to support differing treatment of properties.  Further, the Court observed that the Martin property was, in fact, held to a higher standard of maintenance than the Ely’s because the Martin property was subject to Ames’s rental code. 

Spot zoning.  The Court dismissed the Ely’s final issue of spot zoning by observing that illegal spot zoning results when “like tracts or similar lots are subject to reclassification” without reasonable grounds for treating the subject property differently.  “If a [city council or county board] could determine the subject property is distinguishable from the surrounding area [the court] will uphold its decision.”  The facts that the property had historical and cultural significance to Ames, and that it was a legal nonconforming residence in a residential structure were sufficient grounds for a zoning classification different from its surrounding properties.

LaCrosse, WI resident fails to establish “class of one” Equal Protection claim

by Allison Arends

John G. Reget v. City of La Crosse
(Federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, February 8, 2010)

John Reget and the City of La Crosse have had a long harsh relationship regarding Reget’s operation of a body shop/ automobile restoration business. The conflict between Reget and the City began in 1985 and has involved several citations for code violations, all of which were dismissed. One example of this strained relationship occurred In 1990 when the City cited Reget for a violation of the junk-dealer ordinance. The citation was later dismissed by Reget’s promise to construct a fence around his property, a promise that was never fulfilled. A second example occurred In 1995 when the City aimed to rezone 100 properties (including Reget’s property) from “heavy industrial” to “residential”. Reget confronted the City claiming he was being singled out by the rezoning. Again, the City compromised with Reget and agreed to refrain from rezoning his property as long as he was to construct the promised fence as well as comply with noise ordinances. Reget agreed to both requirements.

In 2006 Reget filed a lawsuit alleging that the City and various city officials violated his equal-protection rights by: 1. selectively enforcing its junk dealer ordinance against him 2. targeting him for rezoning in a discriminatory fashion 3. selectively enforcing its noise regulations. The district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgement, holding that Reget failed to establish that a similarly situated business was treated more favorably.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, “prohibits state action that discriminates on the basis of membership in a protected class or irrationally targets an individual for discriminatory treatment as a so-called ‘class of one.'” The court clarified that the class-of-one theory must establish that (1) a state actor has intentionally treated him differently than others similarly situated, and (2) there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment. The court found Reget’s equal protection claim failed in the first step of the test because, “in order to prove a class-of-one claim the persons alleged to have been treated more favorably must be identical or directly comparable to the plaintiff in all material respects.” Reget did not provide evidence that similarly situated auto-salvage businesses were treated more favorably.

Although Reget presented examples of several other auto-repair shops in La Crosse that were not cited for violating the junk-dealer ordinance, there was no evidence that these businesses violated the ordinance at any time. Even more, the court noted that Reget’s citations were settled through voluntary agreements which cannot support a claim of class-of-one equal discrimination. The court also finds Reget’s claims that the City singled him out for rezoning irrelevant based on the fact that Reget’s property was never rezoned. Finally, in response to Reget’s claim that the City enforced noise ordinance requirements on him and not equally on his neighbors, the court found his claim to be “backwards.” He did not provide evidence that he was first cited under the noise ordinance and a similarly situated ordinance violator was not.

No Equal Protection claim in village’s refusal to assume private water system

by Gary Taylor

Susan Srail, et.al. v. Village of Lisle, IL
(Federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, December 7, 2009)

A small group of residents of a subdivision in the Village of Lisle, Illinois brought a class action suit against the Village, claiming a violation of their rights under the Equal Protection clause of the US Constitution.

The Oak View subdivision was built in the 1950s, and in 1956, the developer created its own water and sewer utility to serve Oak View residents. Since that time, a privately owned utility company has provided Oak View residents with their water needs. The Village of Lisle, Illinois, was incorporated in 1956. In 1967, Lisle developed its own water system. Prior to that time, most residents received their water through private, underground wells. Lisle’s system grew gradually as developers built new housing developments, installing water mains that the developers then donated to Lisle. In 1980, Lisle purchased one of the two privately owned water companies operating in town, which also contributed to the growth of the Lisle system. Lisle did not purchase the privately owned water company operating in Oak View. The Lisle system received its water supply from the DuPage Water Commission (“DWC”), which provided water from Lake Michigan to the utilities with which it contracted. Lisle would then deliver this water to its customers. The water company serving Oak View entered into a similar contract with DWC to receive its water; however, because of difficulties in transporting the water from DWC to Oak View, Lisle entered into an agreement with DWC and the water company in 1995 providing that Lisle would deliver the water purchased by the water company from DWC’s facilities to Oak View. In 2002, Illinois-American Water Company (“IAWC”) purchased the water company that operated in Oak View, becoming the exclusive operator of the water system in the subdivision. Under both IAWC and its predecessor, Oak View’s water system operated with pressure insufficient to extinguish fires. The concern over water pressure sparked the litigation in this case.  The Oak View litigants claimed that Lisle impermissibly discriminated against them by expanding its water services to other subdivisions within Lisle, but refusing to expand its services to Oak View despite the problems with water pressure.

The Seventh Circuit restated the settled law that an equal protection violation occurs when a regulation draws distinctions among people based on a person’s membership in a “suspect” class (suspect classes include race, alienage, and national origin) or when the government action denies of a fundamental right (fundamental rights include freedom of speech and religion. With both suspect classes and denials of fundamental rights, the government’s justification for the regulation must satisfy the strict scrutiny test to pass muster under the Equal Protection Clause.  The court found neither scenario present in this case.  The residentsare not members of a suspect class.  Likewise, the Constitution creates no positive entitlement to fire protection, nor is the right to continued municipal water service a fundamental right. 

In the absence of deprivation of a fundamental right or the existence of a suspect class, the proper standard of review is rational basis. Rational basis review requires the plaintiff to prove that (1) the government intentionally treated plaintiffs differently from others similarly situated; (2) this difference in treatment was caused by the plaintiffs’ membership in the class to which they belong; and (3) this different treatment was not rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Lisle asserted that it had an economic reason for its refusal to extend its system into Oak View; i.e., that the costs associated with an extension, coupled with its assessment of resident disinterest and the unlikely success of an expansion, provided it a rational basis for its decision. Lisle pointed to the fact that an expansion into Oak View would cost it approximately four million dollars.  Lisle would normally recoup the costs of an expansion by passing these costs on to residents who connect to the Lisle system; however, Lisle surveyed nineteen Oak View homeowners who lived adjacent to existing Lisle mains. Out of the nineteen surveyed, only one expressed interest in connecting to the Lisle system.  Appellants claim that Lisle’s failure to survey all of the Oak View residents made its reliance on the nineteen responses unreasonable.  The court confirmed, however, that rational basis review, “courts are compelled . . . to accept a legislature’s generalizations . . . .”  Considering that Lisle had a rational basis for refusing to assume the subdivision’s private system into the municipal system, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment for Lisle.

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