Into the weeds of the National Trails System Act. (That rail trail you like to ride may have a long legal history)

by Gary Taylor

Memmer v. United States

United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, September 28, 2022

This case originated in the United States Court of Federal Claims (Why?  Read this) when Jeffrey Memmer and eleven other Indiana landowners (landowners) brought suit seeking compensation for an alleged taking arising from the application of the National Trails System Act (NTSA) to the abandonment of railway easements by Indiana Southwestern Railway Company.  Landowners claimed they held reversionary interests in the property which were “taken” under the NTSA.  It’s complicated.  Bear with me.

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) has authority to regulate the construction, operation, and abandonment of most rail lines in the United States.  A rail carrier must either file an application with, or seek exemption from, the STB if it intends to abandon or discontinue a rail line.  At the same time, the NTSA allows a rail carrier to instead negotiate an agreement with a locality or a private trail sponsor to convert the railroad’s right-of-way into a recreational trail.  If a rail carrier agrees to negotiate an agreement with a trail sponsor, the STB will issue a Notice of Interim Trail Use or Abandonment (NITU). The NITU provides for a negotiation period during which the railroad can discontinue service on the rail line and salvage track and materials.   If no agreement is reached with a locality or trail sponsor during the negotiation period the railroad may file a notice of consummation of abandonment with the STB, thus abandoning the line.  If an agreement is reached, however, trail use of the right-of-way is authorized and abandonment by the railroad is blocked indefinitely, subject to restoration of the right-of-way for railway purposes.  Because it is possible to again put the right-of-way to use as a railway, the NTSA process is known as “railbanking.”

Another possibility is that after an application for abandonment is filed with the STB another party may make an Offer of Financial Assistance (OFA) to subsidize the operation of the rail line to keep it open.  This could be a local government, for example, or an entity such as a grain elevator that makes consistent use of the line.  If an OFA is proffered those negotiations take precedence over any proposed or ongoing negotiations with a trail sponsor.

It is possible that the railbanking process and conversion of property to use as a recreational trail can result in a takings claim.  It depends on state property law of the state in which the line is situated.  A taking occurs when state law reversionary property interests that would otherwise vest in the adjacent landowners are blocked from so vesting by the NTSA.  In other words, state property law in some states is interpreted to automatically revert the right-of-way to adjacent landowners, while in other states no such reversionary right exists. 

In the present case, Indiana Southwestern submitted a notice of exemption from abandonment proceedings on October 25, 2010, stating that it would consummate abandonment of its rail lines on or after January 15, 2011. In response, the STB published a notice on November 12, 2010 stating that the deadline for railbanking requests was ten days later, on November 22, 2010, and that absent third party intervention, Indiana Southwestern could abandon the lines on December 14, 2010.  The notice indicated that Indiana Southwestern was given until November 12, 2011, to file a notice of consummation of abandonment, if it chose to do so.  A few days after the STB’s notice was published, the Indiana Trails Fund (Fund) submitted a request for the Board to issue a NITU for the rail corridor to permit negotiations with Indiana Southwestern about railbanking. The STB also received notice from the Town of Poseyville, Indiana of its intent to file an OFA, which took precedence over the Fund’s request.  After several months of negotiations with the Town, the Town’s offer fell through.  An NITU was then issued that became effective May 23, 2011, and the Fund and Indiana Southwestern proceeded to negotiate.  Ultimately they failed to execute a trail-use agreement, even after four extensions of the NITU.  The final NITU deadline lapsed on November 8, 2013; however, Indiana Southwestern chose not to consummate the abandonment of the rail line at that time. In the meantime while the NITU was pending, Indiana Southwestern executed a contract with A&K Materials (A&K) to purchase and remove the rails on the rail line except those in rail crossings and move the ties from the center of the rail line. A&K completed its work by early February of 2012.

 Indiana Southwestern did eventually submit a new notice of exemption to start the process over in 2021.  No potential trail sponsors came forward, and no NITU issued, so Indiana Southwestern consummated the abandonment of the line on August 31, 2021.  As a result, the landowners’ fee simple interests became unencumbered by any railway easements on that date. 

While all this was going on, litigation ensued (which presumably why you are still reading this post).  The landowners claimed that a permanent categorical taking occurred with the issuance of the first NITU, because the evidence was that Indiana Southwestern would have abandoned the line absent the NSTA-mandated NITU; that evidence being that no rail traffic had moved over the line for at least two years and that they hired A&K to remove the rails regardless of the outcome of negotiations.  The federal government countered by arguing that there was no government action resulting in a change to the landowners property interests “when a railroad requests abandonment authority (from the STB) and then chooses not to exercise that authority.” 

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the government that a physical taking cannot occur when a NITU ends without either a trail-use agreement or the consummation of the railroad’s abandonment:

The NITU in this case, as in similar cases, was a government action that compelled continuation of an easement for a time; it did so intentionally and with specific identification of the land at issue; and it did so solely for the purpose of seeking to arrange, without the landowner’s consent, to continue the easement for still longer, indeed indefinitely, by an actual trail conversion….Thus, once initiated, a NITU can effect a “mandated continuation” of an easement by the STB that  provides a right of occupation by someone other than the landowner.

Memmer v. US, slip opinion p. 15

The Court then addressed the duration of the physical taking.  The Landowners argued that the temporary taking lasted from May 23, 2011 (the issuance of the first NITU) until August 31, 2021 (when the rail line was finally abandoned) because the requirements for abandonment under Indiana law were satisfied when the railroad removed the rails, yet their reversionary rights were still blocked until the railroad consummated the abandonment.  The government argued that the taking ended upon expiration of the NITU (and its extensions) on November 8, 2013 because it was on that date that the United States was no longer responsible for mandating the continuation of the easement.

The Court agreed with the government’s position because, from November 8, 2013 forward the decision rested solely in the hands of Indiana Southwestern.  “A takings claim must be predicated on actions undertaken by the United States….It is always the railroad’s choice that ultimately impacts the duration of the taking….Moreover, acceptance of [landowners’] argument would effectively contradict the STB’s authority to regulate abandonment which Congress granted over one hundred years ago.”

The Court remanded the case to the Court of Federal Claims for a determination of the compensation and interest due to the landowners as a result of the temporary taking of their property from May 23, 2011 to November 8, 2013. 

Sioux Falls, SD slaughterhouse proposal gives me an excuse to talk about zoning by initiative and referendum

In South Dakota, the people have a right to propose or refer legislation at the state and also local government levels through initiative (propose new legislation through direct public vote) and referendum (put a recent legislative action up for public vote to accept or reject).

Legislative power–Initiative and referendum. The legislative power of the state shall be vested in a Legislature which shall consist of a senate and house of representatives. However, the people expressly reserve to themselves the right to propose measures, which shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of the state, and also the right to require that any laws which the Legislature may have enacted shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of the state before going into effect, except such laws as may be necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions. Not more than five percent of the qualified electors of the state shall be required to invoke either the initiative or the referendum….This section shall apply to municipalities….

South Dakota State Constitution, Article III, Section 1

Sioux Falls City Charter Section 6.03 expressly reserves the powers of initiative and referendum to the citizens.

In September of 2021, Wholestone Farms announced their intent to build a $500 million-plus pork processing plant on a 170-acre parcel of land in northeast Sioux Falls. Soon after the announcement, an opposition group emerged seeking to halt construction of the plant. Smart Growth Sioux Falls objected to building a slaughterhouse inside the city limits. The group gathered the required signatures to have the voters of Sioux Falls weigh in on whether the city should prohibit future slaughterhouses in Sioux Falls city limits. The question is on the November 8 ballot. If approved by the voters the following language would be added to the city’s code of ordinances:

Notwithstanding any other provision of this Code to the contrary, no new Slaughterhouse may be constructed, or be permitted to operate, within the city limits.

This section does not apply to any existing Slaughterhouse constructed and operating before the effective date of this section. This section does not apply to the expansion or alteration of any Slaughterhouse constructed and operating before the effective date of this section so long as such expansion or alteration occurs at the existing site.

Governor Noem has weighed in, saying that the ballot measure was bad for business and that “at the last minute one person(1) can get mad, do a ballot petition and end my business and my investment.” The Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce also opposes the measure and states its reasoning here.

Iowa does not allow zoning questions to be put to the people through either initiative or referenda, but a number of other states do and this South Dakota situation gives me an excuse to visit the topic. Referenda are commonly used to call for voter review of legislative actions such a rezoning or a major change to the ordinance. Administrative or quasi-judicial actions – such as conditional uses, variances, and staff decisions – are not subject to referendum, although the line between legislative and administrative decisions is well-known to get messy.

Would we be better off in Iowa if “ballot box zoning” were possible? From a policy perspective the availability of initiative and referendum for zoning matters is controversial. Proponents support ballot box zoning as the most direct expression possible of residents’ wishes for how their communities should grow and thrive. Opponents are concerned that such measures undermine planning, block needed reforms such as increased residential density and fair housing, and violate the due process rights of property owners (see the Sioux Falls Chamber’s policy position).

Zoning initiative and referenda have been the subject of a wide variety of state court cases. They focus on the validity of the ballot box process when a state’s zoning statutes define a process for notice and hearing, when individual referenda appear to conflict with state mandates for fair housing, when referenda appear to conflict with state statutes and/or caselaw requiring consistency with a comprehensive plan, and other issues. The US Supreme Court has weighed in on federal constitutional questions related to zoning referenda twice. In City of Eastlake v. Forest City Enterprises (1976) the majority opinion supported zoning referenda as giving “citizens a voice on questions of public policy” when it dismissed the developer’s contention that the referendum violated due process as a standardless delegation of legislative power to voters. The Court’s majority stated that the Ohio Constitution contemplated a reservation of the power of referendum by the people, and was not a delegation of power to them. The dissent asserted that the “‘spot’ referendum technique appears to open disquieting opportunities…to bypass normal protective procedures for resolving issues affecting individual rights.”

In City of Cuyahoga Falls v. Buckeye Community Hope Foundation (2003) voters petitioned to place site plan approval for a low income housing complex on the ballot. At city council meetings and independent gatherings, some of which the mayor attended to express his personal opposition to the site plan, residents voiced concerns that the development would cause crime and drug activity to escalate, that families with children would move in, and that the complex would attract a population similar to the one on Prange Drive, the City’s only African-American neighborhood. Voters rejected the site plan at the ballot box, and the Court rejected the developer’s Equal Protection challenge to the results. The Court affirmed previous holdings that “[S]tatements made by private individuals in the course of a citizen-driven petition drive, while sometimes relevant to equal protection analysis…do not, in and of themselves, constitute state action for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment….[R]espondents put forth no evidence that the ‘private motives [that] triggered’ the referendum drive ‘can fairly be attributed to [city government].”

In fact, by adhering to charter procedures, city officials enabled public debate on the referendum to take place, thus advancing significant First Amendment interests. In assessing the referendum as a “basic instrument of democratic government,” we have observed that provisions for referendums demonstrate devotion to democracy, not to bias, discrimination, or prejudice.

City of Cuyahoga Falls v. Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, 538 U.S. 188, 196 (2003)

(1) Over 6,000 petition signatures were in fact required for the measure to appear on the November ballot.

Flag policy catches City of Boston flapping in the breeze

by Gary Taylor

Shurtleff v. City of Boston
United States Supreme Court, May 2, 2022

For years, Boston has allowed groups to hold ceremonies on the plaza in front of city hall, during which participants may hoist a flag of their choosing on a flagpole in place of the city’s own flag and fly it for the duration of the event, typically a couple of hours. Between 2005 and 2017 groups raised at least 50 different flags for 284 such ceremonies, including flags from other countries, flags honoring EMS workers, the Pride Flag and others.

Shurtleff, director of a Christian group, wanted to hold a ceremony to celebrate the civic and social contributions of the Christian community, and raise the “Christian flag”: a red cross on a blue field against a white background. Until Shurtleff’s application, the city had never denied a request to fly a flag. No written policies existed outlining what groups could or could not participate, or dictating the contents of the flag, and city employees did not ask to see the flag before the event. The application itself only asked for contact information and a brief description of the event.

City officials found no record of ever allowing a religious flag to be raised in the past. Because of concerns that flying the ”Christian flag” would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, officials told Shurtleff that his group could hold the event, but could not raise the flag. Shurtleff challenged the denial of the flag-raising in federal district court, contending that it violated is right to free expression under the First Amendment. The district court sided with Boston, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

The United States Supreme Court did not. It observed that, generally speaking, flags’ contents, presence, and location have long conveyed governmental messages. The boundary between government speech and private expression can blur when, as here, the government invites the people to participate in a program. In these situations a Court must conduct a “holistic inquiry” into whether the government intends to speak for itself or, rather, to regulate private expression. Among the factors to consider in this inquiry are the history of the expression at issue; the public’s likely perception as to who (the government or a private person) is speaking; and the extent to which the government has actively shaped or controlled the expression. As noted above, other than day, time and location, Boston exerted little control over the expression. The lack of meaningful involvement in the selection of flags or their messages means the flag-raising event is not “government speech,” and flying the flag for a short period of time does not constitute government promotion of a particular religion; therefore, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was not implicated. However, Boston’s refusal to let petitioner fly his flag did violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment as it was ”impermissible viewpoint discrimination” that “abridged [Shurtleff’s] freedom of speech.”

What to Make of Murr v. Wisconsin

by Eric Christianson

Suppose a landowner owns two adjacent parcels, which she purchased at two different points in time.  One parcel is 20 acres that consists almost entirely of wetlands. The second parcel, immediately to the west, is 50 acres of rolling, developable land.

Years after she purchased both parcels the state enacts a law that effectively prohibits filling, dredging, developing, or otherwise modifying wetlands. The landowner sues the state, claiming a taking of “all viable use” of her property.

What is her “property”?  The landowner will claim that her property for purposes of her takings claim is only the parcel made up of the 20 acres of now-unbuildable wetlands. The state will argue that her property is both parcels taken together, which means the landowner continues to have “viable use” 50 of her 70 total acres.

Who is right?  Courts have long struggled with developing rules for determining the appropriate “denominator parcel” for analyzing taking claims. In Murr v Wisconsin (see the full case brief from last week below) the Supreme Court dealt with precisely this question. And while not offering any clear rules, the court does seem to give local governments the benefit of the doubt in this determination.

A key element in arguing a regulatory takings claim successfully is that the owners show that they have been deprived of, “all or nearly all economically beneficial use of their land” by the offending regulation. This is often determined by comparing the value of the property before the law in question went into effect to its value under the effects of the new law.

Defining the property more narrowly usually gives the landowner the upper hand. Focusing only on the effected parcel makes the loss more severe relative to its value. However, when considered with the entirety of a property owner’s holdings, the deprivation may be less significant relative to the the full value of the land. This is often called the “denominator problem” in takings analysis. Courts need to determine which value to divide the loss by to see if a law has resulted in a loss of all economically viable use.

One complicating factor is the existence of merger provisions in state and local law which under certain circumstances automatically merge adjoining parcels held under common ownership. Such merger provisions have been features of local zoning ordinances for a long time. Towns began enacting them in the 1920s. They were very common by the 1960s, because local governments and state courts recognized that they represent an attractive middle ground between two unattractive extremes: (1) entirely prohibiting the development of substandard lots, which would be a hardship to their owners, and (2) allowing the development of all substandard lots, which would be a hardship to neighbors and restrict the ability of a community to pass regulations.

Whether the inclusion of a merger provision in local law is enough to determine the relevant parcel was one of the most important aspects of Murr v. Wisconson. In this case, the Supreme Court adopted a three-part test to help guide lower courts in making this determination. It also gives local governments some idea what the extent of their power is in setting land use regulations.

This new test directs courts to take into account: (1) state and local law, (2) the physical characteristics of the land, and (3) the prospective value of the land. This case does not give us any bright line rules, but it appears that merger clauses will determine the relevant parcel in most cases. Kennedy’s argument in adding physical characteristics and prospective value to the equation is his attempt to avoid “gamesmanship” by states to avoid paying for regulatory takings. States do not have total power to determine what property rights are.

In returning to our example above, while we do not have a clear answer as to how a court would rule, we do have some idea how a court should reason. (1) What does state and local law say about these two parcels? Are they entirely separate? Or, is there some provision in state law which treats them as merged? (2) How do these two parcels fit together? Are they simply touching along a short edge or do they form a cohesive whole? (3) Finally what is the financial impact of the regulation on the parcels? Are the 20 acres of wetland a total loss or can they serve some economic purpose? Perhaps the wetland is an attractive amenity raising the value of a future housing development on the other 50 acres. Clearly our simple example does not have enough detail for us to answer all these questions.

The second and third factors have to do with the inherent qualities of the land and the local property market, but local governments do have control over the first. In Murr the Court gave significant weight to the existence of a merger provision local law.

In the end, this decision preserves the right of local governments to set minimum lot sizes and avoid further subdivision even where lot lines may appear on a plat map. This is overall a win for local and state governments. However, Kennedy finishes up the opinion of the court by reflecting that much like the analysis of regulatory takings itself, determining the relevant parcel “cannot be solved by any simple test.” If recent takings fights have taught us anything, where there is ambiguity, there will be litigation. Stay tuned.

Planning Board denial not a “final action” under Federal Telecommunications Act when review by Board of Appeals required by ordinance

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Global Tower Assets, LLC; Northeast Wireless Networks, LLC v. Town of Rome
Federal 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, January 8, 2016

Global Tower Assets and Northeast Wireless Networks obtained a leasehold interest in Rome, Maine. According to Rome’s Ordinance applicants must get permission from Rome Planning Board to build a wireless communication tower.

The Ordinance includes a section that reads, “[a]dministrative appeals and variance applications submitted under this Ordinance shall be subject to the standards and procedures established by the Town of Rome Board of Appeals.”

The companies first asked for permission from the Planning Board to build the tower on April 8, 2013. The Board discussed the proposal on May 20, 2013 and held other meetings over the next few months. On February 10, 2014, the Planning Board voted to deny the application because the application was not complete. On March 10, 2014 the Planning Board published their decision. The decision was sent to the Board of Appeals for Review. The next day, the companies filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Maine.

Part of their suit included complaints under the Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996. The TCA provides relief to those who are denied permission to build telecommunication facilities at the state or local level trough “final action”. However, the TCA does not define “final action”.  In this case, the question is whether the administrative process ended. The companies filed their TCA challenge to the Town of Rome Planning Board’s decision before the decision was reviewed by the local board of appeals. In Maine there is a general requirement that land use and zoning appeals are first heard by a zoning board of appeals before they can be litigated in state court.  Thus under Maine law “Rome necessarily made review by the board of appeals a prerequisite to judicial review.” There was an opportunity for the Planning Board’s decision to be overturned through an administrative (rather than judicial) process, meaning that the decision of the Planning Board was not a “final action” within the meaning of the TCA. The legislative history of the TCA does not reject a two-step administrative process at the local level to determine “final actions.”  Because the administrative process, as defined by Rome’s Ordinance was not complete the District Court was correct to dismiss the complaints.

City demonstrates negative secondary effects of adult entertainment establishment sufficient to overcome preliminary injunction

by Hannah Dankbar

BBL, Inc. and Butler v. City of Angola
Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, December 7, 2015

Alva and Sandra Butler own BBL, Inc. which bought a restaurant in Angola, Indiana with plans to convert it to an adult-entertainment venue. Immediately after the purchase the City of Angola amended its zoning ordinance to prohibit this use of the property. BBL, Inc. sued the City claiming a First Amendment violation and requesting a preliminary injunction be issued to prevent enforcement of the ordinance.

As part of the new ordinance Angola requires sexually oriented businesses to locate “at least 750 feet from every residence.” There is no debate that BBL does not meet this requirement.

In regards to the First Amendment claims BBL claimed; (1) the new licensing and zoning amendments violated its right to expressive conduct; and (2) the permit requirement was an impermissible prior restraint on speech.

Angola requested judgment on the applicable legal test (from City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc.) in two separate motions. The steps in this analysis require Angola to show: (1) the challenged  requirements are aimed at reducing the negative secondary effects of adult-entertainment establishments; (2) the requirements are narrowly tailored to serve to that purpose: and (3) the zoning scheme leaves open reasonable alternative sites for this form of expression.

At the preliminary injunction stage BBL reserved the right to later challenge the factual basis on which Angola adopted its ordinance (whether the city’s evidence of negative secondary effects was sufficient) but presented no such evidence at that time. Tactically this was a mistake because, the city provided an extensive (but boilerplate) catalog of secondary effects research.  By not challenging the city’s evidence at that time BBL “radically reduced its chances of obtaining a preliminary injunction.”  In fact BBL’s preliminary injunction was not granted by the trial court, and the 7th Circuit concurred.

Value of railroad corridor for just compensation purposes must include remnants of railroad’s use

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Rasmuson, et al v. United States
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, October 5, 2015

Rasmuson and others own land adjacent to three railway corridors in Central Iowa. Pursuant to the National Trail System Act Amendments of 1982, the Surface Transportation Board issued Notices of Interim Trail Use (NITUs) for the corridors. NITUs “preserve established railroad rights-of-ways for future reactivation of rail service” and permit the railroad operator to cease operation without abandoning any “rights-of-way for railroad purposes.” The trial court found that “but for issuance of the NITUs, under Iowa law the railway easements would have reverted back to plaintiff adjacent landowners upon cessation of railroad operations, and plaintiffs would have enjoyed land unencumbered by any easement.”  The trial court thus found that a taking occurred, then held a bench trial to determine just compensation.  The trial court determined just compensation to be the value of the land as raw land (without any of the railroad’s improvements), and the United States appealed.

A landowner subject to a taking is entitled “to be put in as good a position … as if his property had not been taken.” In the case of an easement, the conventional method of valuation is the difference between the value of the property before and after the government’s easement was imposed.  The issue before the Court was a narrow one: Whether, as the government argued, the “before” condition was the property with the physical remnants of the railway’s use (with tracks, ties, earthen embankments, poor soil conditions) or, as the plaintiffs argued, without such physical remnants (raw land pre-railroad development).

The Court concluded that the fair market value of the land “before” the taking was the value including the physical remains of the railway.  The “before” condition was the property “before” the issuance of the NITUs.  Without the NITUs the land would have returned to the landowners with the physical remains of the railway since the railroad was under no legal obligation to remove the physical remnants of railroad use, and no evidence was introduced that the railroad would have done so on its own.  An appraisal of the land to determine just compensation must therefore take into account the remnants of the railway.

The trial court’s decision was vacated and remanded.

Co op days shy of being able to claim adverse possession

by Andrea Vaage and Gary Taylor

Quality Ag Service of Iowa Inc. v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, October 30, 2015

At issue is the ownership of a sidetrack adjacent to two Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) tracks running through Melrose, Iowa. Quality Ag of Iowa purchased land on August 25, 2000 from Farmers Coop, which purchased land from BNSF in 1994.  The sale did not include the sidetrack adjacent to the purchased parcel; however, Quality Ag has used the sidetrack to receive fertilizer shipments since 2000. On August 3, 2010, one of BNSF’s trains derailed east of the sidetrack. BNSF used the sidetrack to store equipment after the derailment, preventing Quality Ag from using the sidetrack for fertilizer shipments. Instead, Quality Ag was forced to truck fertilizer in at increased expense.  Quality Ag sued BNSF for damages due to the increased cost of delivery, and property damages resulting from the derailment.  The claim was dismissed and an appeal ensued.

Quality Ag’s owner testified that he believed the sidetrack was part of the land purchased from Farmers Coop because a Farmers Coop representative told him that it did at the time of the sale. He also testified that BNSF entered into a written agreement with Quality Ag that BNSF could use the sidetrack if BNSF maintained it; however, the owner was unable to produce this agreement for trial. Conversely, BNSF was able to produce a land survey showing they owned the sidetrack. On appeal, Quality Ag raised the claim that it owns the sidetrack due to adverse possession.

In order to prove a claim of adverse possession a party must “establish hostile, actual, open, exclusive and continuous possession, under a claim of right or color of title, for at least a ten year period.” Quality Ag would need to establish that it met those conditions from August 25, 2000 to August 25, 2010. Since BNSF used the track for equipment storage on August 3, 2010 and beyond, after the derailment, Ag Services failed to show continuous sole use for a full ten year period.  The maintenance agreement claim also failed because Quality Ag was unable to produce the maintenance agreement or othershow it owned the sidetrack.

The decision of the district court was affirmed.

http://media.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/15/10/143025P.pdf

 

Links to law presentations from 2015 APA-Iowa Annual Conference

The powerpoint presentations from the 2015 APA-Iowa Annual Conference held in Sioux City on October 14-16 are now available here.

Thursday afternoon session on Signs and Cell Towers, by Peter McNally, Dustin Miller and Gary Taylor

Iowa APA 2015 Cell Towers
Iowa APA 2015 Signs

Friday morning AICP Law session by Gary Taylor

Iowa APA 2015 Law session

Weeds are not protected speech or expression

by Hannah Dankbar

Discount Inn, Inc. v. City of Chicago
Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 28, 2015

(Note that the Court included photos of native Illinois plants in its written opinion; a very unusual practice)

Chicago’s Department of Administrative Hearings decided that Discount Inn, Inc. violated the weed and fence ordinances.  The weed ordinance reads:

Any person who owns or controls property within the city must cut or other‐ wise control all weeds on such property so that the average height of such weeds does not exceed ten inches. Any person who violates this subsection shall be subject to a fine of not less than $600 nor more than $1,200. Each day that such violation continues shall be considered a separate offense to which a separate fine shall apply.

The fence ordinance reads:

It shall be the duty of the owner of any open lot located within the City of Chicago to cause the lot to be surrounded with a noncombustible screen fence …. Provided, however, that this section shall not apply to … sideyards. The owner shall maintain any such fence in a safe condition without tears, breaks, rust, splinters or dangerous protuberances and in a manner that does not endanger or threaten to endanger vehicular traffic by obstructing the view of drivers. Any fence which is not maintained in accordance with these provisions is hereby declared to be a public nuisance and shall be removed … . It shall be the duty of the owner of any lot whose fence has been so removed to replace such fence with a noncombustible screen fence meeting the requirements of this section and of this Code.” Municipal Code of Chicago § 7‐28‐750(a). Violators “shall be fined not less than $300 nor more than $600 for each offense,” and “each day such violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense to which a separate fine shall apply.

Discount Inn made two claims: (1) the ordinances violate the prohibition against “excessive fines” in the Eight Amendment; and (2) the weed ordinance is vague and forbids expressive activity protected by the First Amendment.

In regards to the first claim, the Supreme Court has not decided whether this clause applies to state action. This court assumes that it does apply, but found that the fines are not excessive. The fines for both ordinances enforce a legitimate government interest. Fencing vacant lots are important for identifying abandoned lots. The City has an interest in controlling weeds because uncontrolled weeds lead to problems such as obscuring debris, providing habitat to rodents and mosquitos, and contributing to breathing problems.

Regarding the second claim, Discount Inn argued that native plants are mistaken for weeds and their use is unnecessarily limited because of the ordinance. There is no clear definition of a weed in the city code. Discount Inn does not argue that they have native or other decorative plants, but simply rather that the ten-inch rule violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. It is true that the First Amendment protects some non-spoken work, such as paintings; however, the Court concluded that these weeds have no expressive value. The owner did nothing to cultivate or design the weeds.

Discount Inn also argues that the ordinances are unconstitutional because they do not specify a statute of limitations. There is no rule that there must be a statute of limitations. Prescribing a statute of limitations for a weed ordinance would require an insane use of city resources.

The decision was upheld.

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