by Eric Christianson
Iowa Supreme Court, April 2, 2003
This is an older case, a classic of Iowa planning and zoning case law. However, the issue of the role of the zoning board of adjustment is one that still comes up quite frequently.
In the late 1990s Wal-Mart began planning a new location in Decorah, Iowa. The location selected was located in the floodplain of the Upper Iowa River. To build there, Wal-Mart had to place fill in the floodplain. First, Wal-Mart obtained the required permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Then, Wal-Mart applied to the Decorah City Council for a permit to place fill on the floodplain. The city’s zoning code contained among its permitted uses in the F-1 floodplain district:
Dumping of approved materials for landfill purposes, subject to prior approval of the city council and appropriate state agencies. [emphasis added]
Following this section of city code, Walmart’s representatives appeared before the city council on August 15, 2000 and requested approval to fill the property. After a heated and confrontational public comment period, the city council approved the request by a vote of four to three. The council’s vote was only to approve the fill. It did not change the zoning of the area or approve of a site plan.
Previously, Upper Iowa Marine, which owns adjacent land, had attempted to dump fill in the floodplain. They also applied for and obtained the proper permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Instead of presenting their request to the city council. They applied for a special exception to the zoning ordinance from the zoning board of adjustment. The board of adjustment found the application inconsistent with the comprehensive plan and denied the request.
A group of citizens in Decorah filed suit, arguing that Wal-Mart’s request should have been submitted to the board of adjustment as Upper Iowa Marine had done rather than the city council.
The case hinges on two main issues (1) the authority of the board of adjustment and the city council and (2) definition of a special use.
Iowa Code 414.7 states that a city council should appoint a board of adjustment so that it, “may in appropriate cases and subject to appropriate conditions and safeguards make special exceptions to the terms of the ordinances…”
Further on in 414.12 Iowa Code defines the powers of the board of adjustment including, “to hear and decide special exceptions to the terms of the ordinance…”
Courts in Iowa have been very clear that no other entity has this power. In The City of Des Moines v. Lohner in 1969 the court said that the power to make special exceptions are “placed exclusively in the board [of adjustment] and effectively restricted by statute.” Likewise in Depue v. City of Clinton in 1968 the court asked itself, “[I]s the jurisdiction of the board of adjustment, conferred by sections 414.7 and 414.12 and exclusive jurisdiction? We think the answer[ is] affirmative.”
It is clear then in Iowa case law that approving special uses is the exclusive jurisdiction of the board of adjustment. At issue is whether conditioning a permitted use on “prior approval of the city council” was essentially the same as a permitted use. Wal-Mart argued that the council’s grant of permission was not a special exemption because it was listed as a permitted use and the council had only a “limited, technical review.” Walmart argued that the city council was not examining whether the proposed change was consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. Instead they were simply ensuring that the appropriate permit had been obtained from the Department of Natural Resources and that the fill material was free from waste materials.
In its reasoning, the court took special note of the contested nature of the public discussion period before the vote at the council meeting. During this meeting evidence and opinions were presented on both sides and one council member even attempted unsuccessfully to convene a task force to study the issue further.
The issuance of special-use permits is quasi-judicial or administrative. […] The problems with allowing a political, legislative body such as a city council to rule on applications of this nature (in addition to lacking statutory authority) are apparent in this case. The city council had no hearing procedures, notice requirements, or the type of guidelines that would govern the board of adjustment.
Even on the cold minutes of the meeting, it is apparent the council would have known by the time the discussion was concluded, if they did not already know, they had a tiger by the tail. The residents were deeply divided on the issue, raising concerns about the environmental impact, the fairness of the proceedings (especially in view of the fact the board of adjustment had denied a similar permit), and the prospect of 120,000 cubic yards of fill being placed in the floodplain in the event the DNR appeal was successful or the construction plans were thwarted for some other reason.
In the end, the court concluded that whether or not dumping fill in the floodplain was a special or conditional use in Decorah’s code, the city council’s actions violated state code.
If it was a special use, is clear that the city council had no authority to allow it. Even if it is not, however, it would violate chapter 414 of Iowa Code which requires that zoning be done “in accordance with the comprehensive plan.” In fact, Decorah’s comprehensive plan expressly addresses protecting its floodplains as natural resources “for use as permanent open space.” In making a decision in direct opposition to the comprehensive plan, the application of the ordinance would still be illegal.
Walmart had already completed construction on the $20 million building that their superstore would occupy at the time of this decision. The building had been sitting vacant since the previous fall awaiting the outcome of this lawsuit. Eventually, the parties settled. Wal-Mart agreed to make a donation to the Decorah library and to fund a study of the floodplain. Wal-Mart also agreed to lease their old building the the city for $1 a year with all proceeds from subleases going to fund the construction of a river trail. The Wal-Mart, much like confusion over roles in planning and zoning, is still with us today.