Neighbor testimony sufficient evidence to support CUP denial

by Andrea Vaage

August v Chisago County Board of Commissioners
Minnesota Court of Appeals, August 17, 2015

Jeffrey August purchased a 20-acre tract of land in Sunrise Township, in Chisago County, Minnesota. August built a fenced-in arena and later an announcement system for mounted shooting events he hosted on the property. In 2013, August formed a club, Cowboy Mounted Shooting, which held competitions and clinics. Mounted shooting involves contestants on horseback who shoot .45 caliber blanks at balloons on posts in the middle of the arena. These competitions were held throughout the summer, typically starting in the afternoon and continuing until dusk. In 2014, the Chisago County zoning department inspected the property after hearing complaints. The department found the use of the property did not conform to its zoned agricultural use. The zoning department then recommended August apply for a conditional use permit (CUP). August complied and filed a request to allow a rural retail tourism/commercial outdoor recreation use.

Two entities provided recommendations on the CUP: Sunrise Township and Chisago County Planning Commission. Sunrise Township recommended denial of the CUP based on the excessive and disruptive noise. The County Planning Commission also recommended denial of the CUP based on comments at a public hearing that noise levels were high and consistent and a planning report which stated that, although the noise was below the allowed decibel limit, it was still clearly audible from neighboring properties.

The public hearing for the CUP was held on July 16, 2014. The County Board of Commissioners denied the permit based on that hearing and the recommendations provided by the Planning Commission. August appealed. At issue is whether the denial of the CUP was unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious. The test to determine if a zoning board decision was sound is two-pronged: the reasons given for denial are legally sufficient and the reasons had a factual basis in the record.

The legal basis for denying the CUP was Section 4.15(D)(5) of the Chisago County Zoning Ordinance (CCO) regulating rural retail tourism. Pursuant to this section, a proposed rural retail tourism use will only be allowed if it “will not negatively impact the neighborhood by intrusion of noise, glare, odor, or other adverse effects.”

The Board established several facts in regards to the noise issue. The Board relied in part on neighbors’ testimony that there was a significant increase in noise and traffic on weekends when the mounted shooting events were held. The arena for these events was located within 500 feet of adjacent homes, and noise was heard by neighboring residents. Additionally, the planning commission members’ trip to the property confirmed the high levels of noise resulting from the gunfire.

August argued the Board cannot rely on neighbor’s testimony, however, the court relied on previous rulings that found that “a municipal entity may consider neighborhood opposition when it is based on something more concrete than non-specific neighborhood opposition.

August also argued that the CUP could only be denied if the noise levels exceeded decibel levels set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MCPA). The Court found that the county zoning ordinances were not in conflict with the MCPA standards because it regulates noise based on neighborhood intrusion, not decibel levels.

The County Board of Commissioners decided to deny the CUP based on sufficient legal and factual basis and was not unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious. The Board’s decision is affirmed.

Lincoln Center (KS) noise ordinance unconstitutional as applied, nuisance ordinance was not

by Gary Taylor

City of Lincoln Center v. Farmway Co-Op and Farmway Storage #1
(Kansas Supreme Court, December 20, 2013)

Farmway owns a grain elevator in the city of Lincoln Center, largely surrounded by residences.  In 2008 Farmway applied for, and was granted a permit to expand the facility by adding a new 124-feet tall grain bin and four aeration fans for grain drying.

According to the testimony of neighbors, when the new facilities began operating in 2009 the levels of dust and noise increased significantly.  The fans made sleeping, conversing and watching TV difficult, and large clouds of grain dust frequently reduced visibility and caused respiratory problems.  It was undisputed that Farmway took several steps to reduce noise and dust concerns, and that the facilities complied with all state and federal regulations regarding dust and noise.  Nevertheless, the city cited Farmway for violations of both its noise and its nuisance ordinances.  Farmway was found guilty of both.  Farmway appealed on the grounds that both ordinances were unconstitutionally vague.  The district court sided with Farmway and, on appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed.  The city appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

To determine if an ordinance is unconstitutionally vague, a Kansas court must make a two-pronged inquiry to (1) determine whether the ordinance gives adequate notice to those tasked with following it; specifically, whether it conveys sufficient definite warning and fair notice as to the prohibited conduct in light of common understanding and practice.  (2) the ordinance must be precise enough to adequately protect against arbitrary and discriminatory action by those tasked with enforcing it.

The City’s Noise Ordinance:

Section 1. DISTURBING THE PEACE. It is unlawful for any person to make, continue, maintain or cause to be made or continue any excessive, unnecessary, unreasonable or unusually loud noise which either annoys, disrupts, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace or safety of others within the City.
Based on the test set forth above, the Court concluded the noise ordinance was unconstitutionally vague as applied to Farmway because it failed the second prong of the inquiry.  “Consider the uncertainty facing the enforcing agents when they determined … whether Farmway’s noise was ‘excessive,’ ‘unnecessary,’ or ‘unusually loud,’ which ‘disrupts’ or ‘annoys’ others in the city.  The ordinances’ lack of objective standards for making these determinations readily promotes varying and somewhat unpredictable bases for enforcement….This vagueness constitutes an impermissible delegation of basic policy matters to actors ‘for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis.'”
The City’s Nuisance Ordinance:

MAINTAINING PUBLIC NUISANCE. Maintaining a public nuisance is by act, or by failure to perform a legal duty, intentionally causing or permitting a condition to exist which injures or endangers the public health, safety or welfare. (K.S.A. 21-4106). Maintaining a public nuisance is a Class C violation.

PERMITTING PUBLIC NUISANCE. Permitting a public nuisance is knowingly permitting property under the control of the offender to be used to maintain a public nuisance, as defined in Section 9.5 of this article. (K.S.A. 21-4107).
The language in the city’s nuisance ordinance is verbatim from the Kansas statutes.  To the two-pronged inquiry the Court added a third consideration for nuisances; that is, that the court must be “mindful of the specific characteristics of nuisances….[W]hether an activity constitutes a nuisance is generally determined by reference to the interest invaded and the harm inflicted, not the nature or quality of the defendant’s acts.”
The Court concluded that, unlike the words found in the noise ordinance, the words “injure” and “endanger” have common meanings widely understood in the legal context.  Similarly the meaning of “public health,” “public safety,” and “public welfare” is widely understood in legal circles. Citing Black’s Law Dictionary and prior caselaw, the Court found that Farmway was “clearly on notice” that its facility was injuring or endangering the public’s health, safety, or welfare, and that the agents enforcing the ordinance were not free to prosecute based on their own ad hoc and subjective judgments; they must consider how the community is affected.  The Court upheld the constitutionality of the nuisance ordinance.

Archives

Categories