Posting unapproved minutes with ZBA decision does not start the clock for purposes of filing appeal

by Eric Christianson

Burroughs v. Davenport ZBA
(Iowa Supreme Court, May 25, 2018)

To operate a daycare in the City of Davenport one must obtain a special use permit from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA).  In March 2014, the ZBA granted Tiny Tots Learning Center a permit. Tiny Tots closed its doors in late 2014, and in July 2016 a new lessee of the premises, Mz Annie-Ru Daycare Center, opened at the same location. The new day care center supervises more children and is open for longer hours than Tiny Tots was. The Davenport Zoning Administrator determined the special use permit issued to Tiny Tots “run[s] with the land” and the new daycare center would not need to obtain another special use permit.

Burroughs along with other neighbors disagreed and appealed that decision to the Board of Adjustment. On October 13 the ZBA voted 4-0 to uphold the administrator’s decision that the special use permit continued to apply. After that hearing, staff advised the residents that they could file a petition to revoke the special use permit. They did so and on December 8 the board held a public hearing to determine if the permit should be revoked. The BOA voted 0-4 against revoking the permit. Shortly after both of these meetings city staff posted unofficial minutes to the city’s website; however, they were not officially approved until the subsequent meeting of the ZBA.

On January 25, Burroughs along with five other residents appealed these decisions to District Court claiming that the ZBA had acted improperly in refusing to revoke the permit. The City filed a motion to dismiss the case, asserting that the petition was untimely because it was not filed within thirty days of the challenged decisions.

Iowa Code 414.15 states:

Any person […] aggrieved by any decision of the board of adjustment […] may present to a court of record a petition […] Such petition shall be presented to the court within thirty days after the filing of the decision in the office of the board.

The district court granted the City’s motion. Considering the posting of the minutes online to be the “filing of the decision.” Because the minutes of the December 8 meeting were posted on December 19th. The appeal on January 25th was untimely.

The court concluded that the:

“thirty-day time period begins to run from the time the appealing party has either actual knowledge or is chargeable with knowledge of the decision to be appealed.”  Because it was “undisputed” that plaintiffs attended both the October 13 and the December 8 meetings, they had actual knowledge of the Board’s decisions as of those dates: “[T]he Court cannot hold that they did not have actual knowledge or chargeable knowledge of the decision which they witnessed firsthand.”

 

Burroughs and the other plaintiffs appealed this dismissal.

The Iowa Supreme Court considered four possibilities of when the decision was “filed” in this case:

  1. The time that the decision is made in a public meeting wherein the parties gain “actionable knowledge.”
  2. When the unofficial minutes of the meeting are posted to the city websites.
  3. When approved official minutes have been posted online.
  4. When a signed physical document is present in the offices of the BOA and available for public inspection.

Both parties had an initial and fallback opinion. The city argued that the decision was “filed” at the meeting when the vote was taken and the parties were aware of the action. If that was not accepted, then they argued that the posting of the unofficial meeting minutes online should be considered filing the decision.

The plaintiffs argued principally that that for a decision to be filed it had to be a physical signed document including findings of fact and available for public inspection at the board’s offices. By this argument neither the October 13th decision nor the December 8th decisions had ever been properly filed and thus could still be appealed. If the court did not accept this argument, then they argued that only the posting of the approved minutes online could be considered “filing.” This fallback position would only preserve the December 8th refusal to revoke the permit for appeal as the approved minutes containing that decision were not posted until January 6th.

The court gave a few principles that can be used to determine when a ZBA decision has been filed and, therefore, how long plaintiffs have to appeal.

First, a decision cannot be simply oral.  It must exist in some documentary form. Simply having knowledge of what the decision is is not sufficient.

Second, the decision can be filed in electronic rather than paper form. The plaintiffs in this case tried to argue that a public document must be physical. The court disagreed indicating that in fact most of the Court’s own documents exist only digitally.

Third, a document has been filed in the “office of the board” when it has been posted on the board’s publicly available website that the board uses as a repository for official documents. The “office of the board” does not have to be a single physical location as long as the documents are accessible to the public.

Finally, the thirty-day period is triggered when the board posts the decision on its public website.  However, what is posted must be an actual decision.  Proposed minutes that have not yet been approved do not constitute a decision, but approved minutes do.

The Supreme Court of Iowa reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the December 8th ZBA decision. The case is remanded back to district court for further proceedings on the legality of that decision.

Certification of class action appropriate in suit for nuisance, trespass and negligence against grain processor

by Gary Taylor

Freeman, et al., v. Grain Processing Corp.
Iowa Supreme Court, May 12, 2017

Residents who live near Grain Processing Corporation’s (GPC) corn wet milling plant in Muscatine brought an action for nuisance, trespass and negligence against GPC for its manner of operation of the plant and the resulting “haze, odor, and smoke” emanating from the plant.  The residents moved to treat the claim as a class action suit on behalf of all residents suffering the effects of the plant’s operation.  GPC resisted the motion to certify the case as a class action, arguing that the claims of the residents were “inherently individual, and as such, individual issues predominated over those common to the class.”  The district court granted class certification.  Noting its authority to modify or decertify the class at any time, the court divided the class into two subclasses: one for members in close proximity to GPC, and the other for those in peripheral proximity.  GPC appealed.  Certification of the class action suit was the sole issue before the Iowa Supreme Court (in an earlier case, posted here, these same parties litigated the applicability of the Clean Air Act to local claims for nuisance).

Under Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure 1.261 – 1.263 a district court may certify a class action if “the class is so numerous…that joinder of all members…is impracticable” and “there is a question of law or fact common to the class.”  In addition, a class action should be permitted for the “fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy” and “the representative parties fairly and adequately will protect the interests of the class.”  The Court of Appeals first noted that caselaw requires that “a failure of proof on any one of the prerequisites is fatal to class certification,” but also that, at this stage, “the proponent’s burden is light.”  The Court of Appeals does not review the decision to certify the class itself, but simply whether the district court abused its discretion in doing so.

GPC argued that the district court erred because the requirement of commonality was not met, and that in this case individual issues predominate over common questions of law or fact.

Commonality.  It is not sufficient that class members have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law.  Rather, claims must depend on a common contention of an issue that central to the validity of each one of the claims.  GPC argued that the named plaintiffs did not suffer the same injury of other class members; particularly in the types of harm suffered and the degree of proof needed to prove causation.  The district court initially agreed, noting that two of the plaintiffs –the one closest to GPC and the one furthest – suffered significantly different “concentration totals” of particulates tested in the air.  The Court resolved this disparity, however, by creating the two subclasses and grouping the plaintiffs accordingly.  Thus the plaintiffs within each subclass had identified common questions of extensiveness of emissions, what caused them, what precautions were taken, and economic impact.

Predominance.  A common question does not end the inquiry.  Courts consider class actions appropriate “only where class members have common complaints that can be presented by designated representatives in the unified proceeding.”  It “necessitates a close look at the difficulties likely to be encountered in the management of a class action.”  The district court spent considerable time addressing the predominance question in its ruling.  It concluded “While variations in the individual damage claims are likely to occur and other sources of emissions may pose unusual difficulties, common questions of law and fact regarding defendant’s liability predominate over questions affecting only individual class members such that the subclasses should be permitted for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.”  After going through the standards of proof for negligence, trespass, and nuisance claims, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that common questions of law, with common evidentiary findings required of each, will predominate the action, and that therefore class action treatment is appropriate.

Class action certification was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

When suing county, failure to serve notice on county is not a minor procedural error

by Gary Taylor

Dewit and Dewit v. Madison County Zoning Board and Madison County Zoning Board of Adjustment
Iowa Court of Appeals, September 13, 2017

In March 2015 the Madison County Zoning Office filed civil infractions against the Dewits for several zoning ordinance violations.  The case number assigned to these infractions was CVCV034188.  These infractions were resolved through a consent order in September 2015 which required the Dewits to abate the violations within six months (by February 2016).  After the consent order was issued, the Dewits filed an application for an agricultural exemption from the county’s zoning ordinance, which the county zoning administrator denied.  On appeal, the Madison County Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) affirmed the denial.

On April 20, 2016 the Dewits filed a petition for writ of certiorari challenging the ZBA’s decision; however, they filed it in the civil infraction case CVCV034188.  The county attorney accepted service of the petition, but the original notice was not included in the materials sent to or accepted by the county attorney.  The county moved to dismiss the petition on the ground that the petition should have been docketed as a new action and not as a filing in the civil infraction case.  On June 7, 2016 the district court denied the motion to dismiss, and ordered the clerk of court to transfer the petition and all related filings to the appropriate docket and to assign a new case number to the petition.

The ZBA then filed a motion to dismiss on September 1, 2017 for failure to timely serve original notice on the board.  The next day the Dewits served notice on the ZBA, but this was 135 days from the original filing of the petition on April 20.  (Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure require original notice to be served on a defendant within 90 days of filing a petition).

The Dewits contended that the original notice was served on the ZBA 80 days from the day the district court transferred the petition to a new docket with a new case number; however, at the time the district court specifically ordered that the petition “would relate back to and be deemed to have commenced on the date of filing, April 20.” Thus service of the original notice did fall outside the 90 day window.

The Dewits also contended that the county attorney’s acceptance of the petition alone is sufficient to comply with Iowa Rules of Procedure.  The court rejected this as well.

The original notice and petition are separate and distinct….The contents of the original notice are prescribed by rule.  In contrast, the petition is a pleading that sets forth a simple and concise statement of the claim or claims at issue. [While] it is true Iowa courts are committed to liberal construction of the rules of procedure to insure resolution of disputes on their merits, the failure to timely serve original notice cannot be deemed a minor or technical error.

The district court did not err in dismissing the Dewits’ petition.

Date of Board’s decision, not date of approval of meeting minutes, starts clock for filing appeal

by Gary Taylor and Hannah Dankbar

Hyde v. Sully County Board of Adjustment
South Dakota Supreme Court, September 28, 2016

Hyde appealed a decision from the Sully County Board of Adjustment (the Board) to grant a conditional use permit (CUP) to Ring-Neck Energy & Feed, LLC for an ethanol plant. The Board approved the CUP in a meeting held on July 20.  When the next met on August 4 it approved the minutes of the July 20 meeting.  Hyde challenged the approval in district court on August 20, which was 31 days after the Board’s approval but only 16 days after approval of the meeting minutes.  Hyde claimed that the approval was illegal due to violations of the open-meeting laws, and that an ethanol plant is not allowed under the Sully County zoning ordinance. The court determined that the petition was untimely, and Hyde appealed.

Regarding the timeliness of the petition in district court, state statute (SDCL 11-2-61) requires these petitions to be filed within 30 days of the day the decision is filed. Hyde argued that the relevant date for appeal purposes was the date of the Board’s approval of the meeting minutes, not the Board’s decision to grant the CUP.  The state statute requires that a petition set forth  “the grounds of the illegality” of the decision being challenged; thus the statute is referencing the date of the decision claimed to be illegal.  That decision would be made on July 20.  The Hydes do not claim any illegalities associated with the decision made on August 4 to approve the minutes.

Because the petition was not filed in a timely manner, the court did not hear the other arguments raised on appeal.

Failure to sue the proper party proves fatal to rezoning challenge

Rita Aust, et al. v. Platte County, PC Homes L.L.C., Kelly Jo Yulich Trust, Arlene Kagan and Wendy Winer
Missouri Court of Appeals, December 29, 2015

Real Estate developer PC Homes entered into a purchase agreement with three landowners to buy their property with the purpose of developing it into a single-family community in Platte County, MO. Platte County Planning and Zoning Commission twice denied the application to rezone the property from “agricultural” and “rural estates” to “single family high density” and “planned residential.” The Platte County Commission approved the rezoning to “planned residential.”

Aust and 41 other Platte County property owners (Appellants) filed a petition in the Circuit Court of Platte County for a writ of certiorari and declaratory judgment that the Commission’s decision was illegal, unreasonable and arbitrary. They wanted the rezoning to be denied or rescinded. Platte County was the only defendant on the petition. Platte County filed to dismiss the petition on multiple grounds.

The circuit court dismissed the petition, which was followed by an appeal.

The Appellants argued that the circuit court erred in dismissing their complaints because: (1) the provided proper notice to all parties; (2) their failure to file the record of the administrative proceedings within the statutorily-required time frame was not fatal to their claim; (3) declaratory relief was available to them; and (4) they sufficiently pled a claim for injunctive relief.

In addressing the first two points on appeal, the court referenced Section 64.660. Even though Platte County is a non-charter first class county, its planning and zoning program operates under statutes of second and third class counties. Section 64.660 provides in part, that any land owners disturbed by a county commission decision may present a petition in circuit court within 30 days after the decision. The statute also provides that after the petition is presented the court should allow a writ of certiorari. The court is allowed to reverse, affirm or modify the decision brought up for review (64.660.2).

The Appellants filed the petition against the County, not the County Board of Commission. This led to the Appellants being unable to file the record within 30 days of filing their petition. The Appellants sought to include the individual Commissioners within their official capacities, they did not ask to join the Commission as a body. Because the Appellants failed to seek a writ of certiorari against the proper party under Section 64.660 and did not turn in the record within 30 days the first two points were denied.

Regarding the third point, Section 64.660 provides for judicial review of the Commission’s zoning decisions through a petition for writ of certiorari. A declaratory judgment is not available to the Appellants because the option of the legal remedy precludes declaratory relief. Point three was denied.

Regarding point four, parties are not allowed to obtain equitable relief, such as an injunction, “unless the facts pleaded in the petition show they lack an adequate remedy at law”. The Appellants did not plead any facts showing that they lacked an adequate remedy at law. Point Four was denied and the circuit court’s judgment was affirmed.

Provision in subdivision ordinance requiring neighbor approval held to be valid

by Andrea Vaage

Counceller v City of Columbus Plan Commission
Indiana Court of Appeals, August 19, 2015

John Counceller owned a 3.26 acre lot in Indian Hills Estates in Columbus, Indiana. He had previously submitted three applications between 1999 and 2013 to subdivide his lot into two lots, which he either withdrew or let expire upon approval. In 2014, Counceller submitted a fourth application to subdivide his lot into a total of three lots. After the Plat Committee granted primary approval to the request, Counceller’s neighbors submitted an appeal.

Section 16.24.225 of Columbus’s subdivision control ordinance requires approval of 75% of neighboring property owners for the further subdivision of a lot. Almost all of Counceller’s neighbors objected to the application. Due to this objection, the Commission decided to deny the application. Counceller claimed the City should be estopped from applying the 75% approval rule. The trial court denied this petition.

One of the elements that must be met in an estopppel case is that the petitioner had a lack of knowledge and of the means of knowledge as to the facts in question. Counceller argued that he was not informed of the 75% requirement by the City in any of his previous applications; however, Indiana caselaw is clear that “property owners are charged with knowledge of ordinances that affect their property.”  As a general rule, equitable estoppel will not be applied against governmental authorities in those cases where the party claiming to have been ignorant of the facts had access to the correct information.  The City did not withhold the means for Counceller to become aware of the ordinance.

Counceller admitted that no City officials implied that this regulation would not be applied to his application. Counceller instead argued that because this regulation was not enforced in the other three applications it should not be enforced in the fourth. However, none of his other applications made it to the point where this requirement might arise. Furthermore, the fourth application is different from the previous three in that the application proposes the property be subdivided into three lots instead of two.

Counceller also asserted the City, by adopting the 75% rule, improperly abdicated its responsibility to exercise exclusive control of the subdivision of land to Counceller’s neighbors. While it is true that similar provisions have been held to be a violation of due process, the Court of Appeals found that the 75% rule in the Columbus ordinance did not give unrestricted power to the neighbors. Section 16.24.225 allows for a waiver to be obtained if the Commission “finds that the proposed change will not have a significant impact on the existing subdivision.” Counceller never requested this waiver in his application, nor did he ever choose to request the waiver when given additional opportunities.

The Court found Counceller had the means to learn of the 75% requirement, and the opportunity to request a waiver. The judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

Hearing before planning commission not a ‘contested case’ under Missouri Administrative Procedures Act

by Andrea Vaage

450 N. Lindbergh Legal Fund v. City of Creve Coeur, Missouri
Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, June 16, 2015

Biermann Company owned a 1.98 acre tract in Creve Coeur, Missouri. The property was located in a General Commercial zoning district, which allows assisted-living facilities as a conditional use. Biermann Company applied for a conditional-use permit for an assisted-living facility for the elderly. The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the CUP after a public hearing, and the City council later approved the permit application.

Plaintiffs sought judicial review of City of Creve Coeur’s approval of the conditional-use permit as a contested case under the Missouri Administrative Procedures Act (MAPA). The trial court dismissed the petition on its merits.  The plaintiffs appealed the decision.

The threshold question before the Court was whether the case could be tried as a contested case (versus a noncontested case) under MAPA.  MAPA  defines a contested case as “a proceeding before an agency in which legal rights, duties or privileges of specific parties are required by law to be determined after hearing.” In order for a case to qualify as contested, parties must be given an opportunity for a formal hearing with the presentation of evidence, including sworn testimony and cross-examination of witnesses.  Contested cases also require written findings of fact and conclusions of law.  The hearing must be mandated by a statute or ordinance outside the MAPA.

As per rules set out in Creve Coeur City Code 405.170, the Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing about the conditional-use permit for the assisted-living facility. The City Code provides no procedural requirements for the hearing. The hearing for the assisted-living facility was held on the record and those who spoke were sworn in; however, no witnesses were examined or cross-examined, no objections to evidence were made, and no formal rules of evidence were followed.  Furthermore, the hearing was held for the Planning and Zoning Commission to make a recommendation to the City Council. The City Council made the final decision for the CUP application; therefore, the hearing held before the Commission did not determine the legal rights, duties, or privileges of specific parties.

The Court found that the recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Commission could not be reviewed as a contested case, and since plaintiffs sought judicial review under the sections governing contested cases it was improper for the trial court to consider the case.  As a result, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the case and remanded it to the trial court with instructions to dismiss the petition for review on grounds that plaintiffs failed to state claim upon which relief can be granted.

Council’s rescission of conditional use permit based on misrepresentation was not based on substantial evidence

by Gary Taylor

Oneida Seven Generations Corp. & Green Bay Renewable Energy v. City of Green Bay
Wisconsin Supreme Court, May 29, 2015

Oneida Seven Generations Corporation sought a conditional use permit (CUP) to install a renewable energy facility in the City of Green Bay.  The facility would take municipal solid waste and turn it into energy via a pyrolytic gasification system. The application was supported by a 149-page report on the facility. The report included proposed blueprints for the facility and artist’s renderings of its exterior. It also contained photographs of a pyrolytic gasification unit with various parts labeled, including its “exhaust stack.” In addition to these illustrations, the report described the various permits that would be required from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the requisite reporting to and oversight by the DNR of the facility’s emissions. The report also contained a 50-page section entitled “Emissions,” which consisted of two papers analyzing the impact on air quality of similar facilities. The papers identify possible emissions from conversion technologies, explain that they are significantly lower in amount than emissions from other types of facilities, and observe that the emissions from facilities using conversion technologies fall within local, state, federal, and international emission limits. The papers were followed by an appendix listing over 100 facilities throughout the world that are disposing and converting biomass (principally municipal solid waste) in the process of producing energy and/or fuels.

During the question and answer session at the February 2011 Planning Commission meeting, commissioners asked numerous questions about the gasification process, the technology and its use in other communities, emissions, building appearance (including exhaust stacks), and several other topics. At the conclusion, the Plan Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the conditional use permit. Their recommendation suggested that a number of conditions be placed on the permit. These included the requirement that the facility comply with all municipal regulations and the requirement that the facility comply with federal and state regulations governing air and water quality.

The Green Bay Common Council took up Oneida Seven’s request on March 1, 2011.   Council members asked many more questions regarding emissions and waste material. At the conclusion, the Council voted 10-1 to approve the conditional use permit with the conditions recommended by the Plan Commission.

Although the City initially voted to grant the permit, it subsequently voted to rescind the CUP on the basis that it was obtained through misrepresentation. This came after Oneida Seven applied for the various city, state, and federal permits it would need for the project and submitted plans to accompany those applications.  Members of the public complained to the Green Bay City Council about many matters related to the proceeding, including that the stacks and emissions referenced in the building permit were not on the plan submitted for the CUP.  The  Council voted to direct the Plan Commission to hold a hearing to determine whether the conditional use permit had been obtained by misrepresentation. After taking more testimony and receiving more documents from Oneida Seven, the Commissioners unanimously agreed that they had had adequate information to reach a decision on the CUP, that they had not been misled, and that Oneida Seven had not made misrepresentations. The Commission relayed these findings to the Council in a report. The Council considered the Commission’s findings at a meeting on October 16, 2012. A motion to approve the decision of the Commission did not pass, but a motion to rescind the conditional use permit passed by a vote of seven to five.  Oneida appealed, lost at trial court, but won at the Court of Appeals.  The City appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court was asked to consider whether the City’s decision to rescind Oneida Seven’s conditional use permit was supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is evidence “of such convincing power that reasonable persons could reach the same decision as the board.” In determining whether the substantial evidence test is met, a court should “take into account all the evidence in the record.”  After carefully dissecting the entire record of statements made by Oneida Seven representatives at the Commission and Council meetings, and examining them in the context of the questions being asked of them at the time, the Supreme Court could not find evidence in the record on which a reasonable person could rely to find that Oneida’s statements about emissions and hazardous materials were misrepresentations. Therefore the Supreme Court concluded that the City’s decision to rescind the conditional use permit was not based on substantial evidence.

Dissenting opinion

Justice Roggensack dissented, arguing that the majority opinion did not accord the Council’s decision the presumption of correctness and validity that the law requires, and that instead, the majority opinion substituted its view of the evidence for that of the Council, contrary to law.  Material misrepresentations were made to the Council in regard to emissions during operation of the gasification facility and such a facility was not experimental because solid municipal waste was being used as the feedstock in other gasification facilities. A reasonable view of the presentations made March 1, 2011, when Oneida Seven obtained the CUP, supported the Council’s finding that it was misled.

MN county ordinance required formal adoption of planning commission findings on the record at a meeting

by Hannah Dankbar

Bio Wood Processing, LLC v. Rice County Board of Commissioners
Minnesota Court of Appeals, April 13, 2015

Bio Wood Processing recycles wood products into bedding for animals and mulch. Its facility is located in Rice County, near the City of Faribault. The area of the facility is zoned as urban-reserve, and any agriculture businesses must obtain a conditional use permit (CUP). Bio Wood received a CUP in 2011 that restricted the hours they could grind wood.

In 2013 Bio Wood asked to amend its CUP; this included an expansion of its hours of operation. The planning commission allowed longer wood grinding hours, but reduced the total hours of operation. In 2014 Bio Wood applied for another amendment that asked for a new set of conditions that did not include any restrictions on hours of operation. After hearing from company representative and community members who live near the facility, the planning commission took a voice vote and decided to recommend denial of the application.

Between May 1 and 13, 2014 a written document entitled “Findings of Fact” was written with notes from the Planning Commission meeting to pass along to the Board of Commissioners. The Board of Commissioners followed the recommendation and denied the application. Bio Woods appealed.

Bio Woods claimed that the county erred in judgment in multiple ways; (1) the planning commission failed to make findings of fact on the record, (2) the board failed to engage in reasoned decision-making, (3) the board’s findings are not supported by the factual record and (4) the board treated applicants who are similarly situated differently.

Bio Woods claimed that the Planning Commission did not meet the requirements of the county ordinance, which states in part that “the report from the planning commission to the County Board shall take the form of formal findings on the record.” The county argued that nothing in the ordinance required them to write the findings themselves or read them out loud on the record. A notary public did certify a portion of a transcript, but not the section that mentions findings of fact. The court found the plain meaning of the ordinance required the commission to make formal findings in the course of a public meeting, either by stating them orally or by approving a previously prepared document that includes written findings. The court determined that the county did not satisfy the plain meaning of the county ordinance because county staff prepared written findings from a meeting after the meeting happened and submitted the written findings to the County Board without the Planning Commission ever formally adopting them  “on the record.”

The court reversed the Board of Commissioner’s decision to deny the CUP. The matter went back to the county to make valid findings in this case.

Legally sufficient hearing must allow public comment on the underlying reason for the requested zoning amendment

by Hannah Dankbar

Campbell, et al., v. Franklin County and Union Electric Company d/b/a Ameren Missouri
Missouri Supreme Court, February 3, 2015

Multiple individuals joined the Labadie Environmental Organization (LEO) to file a writ of certiorari claiming that Franklin County Commission made errors in their adoption of zoning amendments that would allow Union Electric Company to build an ash-coal landfill next to its power plant in Labadie.

The organization made two claims on appeal: (1) the commission did not conduct a legally sufficient hearing before adopting the zoning amendments that would allow the coal-ash landfill, and (2) the court erred in finding that the zoning amendments were promoting public health, safety and welfare and are therefore valid.

Ameren (the owner of the Labadie Power Plant) publicly announced the proposal to build the coal-ash landfill on the land next to the power plant. The plant is the only public utility power plant in Franklin County and the only possible location for the coal-ash landfill. LEO alleges that the chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission told speakers at the public hearing that they could not discuss Ameren or the proposed site for the landfill, and that county officials “interrupted speakers when they attempted to discuss Ameren’s proposed Labadie landfill site…”  LEO alleges that placing limitations on what the public was allowed to speak about meant that the county had not conduced a legally sufficient hearing.

After LEO filed their petition, the court asked the county to produce records from the meeting. The county did, and the commission and Ameren filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court dismissed the first count of LEO’s petition and determined that the zoning amendments were valid.  LEO appealed.

The Missouri Supreme Court noted that the statute does not expressly provide whether a public hearing is required, nor does it explicitly define what constitutes a “hearing.”   The Court concluded first that it would be “nonsensical” to require public notice of a non-public hearing.  The hearing, therefore, was a public hearing.

Following that is the question whether the public hearing was insufficient because the commission precluded the public from addressing Ameren’s proposed coal-ash landfill.  A dictionary definition of “hearing” is “a session…in which testimony is taken from witnesses,” “an opportunity to be heard to present one’s side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated,” and “a listening to arguments.”  Given the plain language meaning of the word “hearing,” the Court concluded that the legislature intended for members of the public to be able to present their side of the case.  The hearing, therefore, should be conducted so that the public can address the subject matter of the proposed zoning amendments.  Assuming LEO’s allegations are true, the manner in which the hearing was conducted arguably denied the citizens of Franklin County a fair opportunity to be heard and to present their side of the case.  It prevented them from discussing the actual, underlying subject of the amendments.

The Missouri Supreme Court remanded the case to the circuit court to direct the county to hold a legally sufficient hearing.

 

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