Court of Appeals finds $25,000 award reasonable for sewer easement

by Eric Christianson

City of North Liberty v. Gary Weinman
(Iowa Court of Appeals, April 5, 2017)

In 2014 North Liberty was in the process of developing what would become Iowa City Liberty High School to alleviate overcrowding in the Iowa City School District. However, the site selected did not have access to sanitary sewer. To service the area, the City of North Liberty explored several options before selecting its ultimate path in 2014. This path crosses the private property of 13 individuals. The city was able to secure temporary easements (for construction) and permanent easements (for ongoing maintenance) from 12 of the 13. The final holdout was Dr. Gary Weinman who first sought through a pair of lawsuits to force the city to stop construction and reconsider other routes. Those suits failed.

Easements are always considered takings and therefore Weinman was entitled to just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. A compensation commission decided that Weinman was entitled to $75,000. This included a temporary easement for construction (1.1 acres for four months) and a permanent easement (.75 acres). The city appealed claiming that amount was excessive. Weinman requested a jury trial so the matter was tried de novo to the jury. The jury set the compensation amount at $25,000 relying largely on the testimony of an expert assessor brought by the city.

Weinman appealed this decision to the Iowa Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals does not  generally reverse compensation awards provided that they are not “wholly unfair or unreasonable.” In this case, because the jury’s decision was reasonable based on the evidence, the award of $25,000 was affirmed.

 

Sewage holding tank pumped out by the city does not constitute “city sewer services”

by Hannah Dankbar

Charter Township of Haring v City of Cadillac
Michigan Court of Appeals, March 5, 2015

In the early 2000s the Charter Township of Haring signed an agreement with the city of Cadillac in accordance with MCL 124.22 which allows two or more local units of government to “conditionally transfer property for a period of not more than 50 years for the purpose of an economic development project” by means of “a written contract agreed to by the affected local units.” This contract conditionally transferred property in East Haring over to Cadillac so that Cadillac could provide public safety and infrastructure services for the property. The contract said that the property would belong to the city in 2053, however there was an early termination and reversal clause affecting part of the property, the Boersma parcel.

In relevant part, the early termination clause states:  For the [Boersma parcel], City water and/or City sewer services must be provided no later than 10 years from the effective date of this agreement. In the event that City water and/or City sewer services are not provided within the 10 year term provided above, then the real estate described in this paragraph shall be automatically removed from the terms of this agreement and the jurisdiction for such real estate shall immediately revert to the Township.

The contract was not specific about what constitutes “city water or sewer.” Cadillac did not put in a sewer pipeline that led to the wastewater treatment facility, rather the City installed a self-contained sewage holding tank and a truck was used to pump the sewage in order to transport it to the facility. Haring sued Cadillac in 2003 claiming a breach in the contract, and seeking termination of the contract for failing to install a sewer system.

The early termination clause specified that jurisdiction over the Boersma parcel would “immediately revert” to Haring Township if Cadillac failed to provide the Boersma parcel with “City water and/or City sewer services” within ten years of the agreement. The Township argued that the sewer services that Cadillac provides to Boersma are different, and of lower quality, than the services it provides to the other properties within their jurisdiction. Neither the early termination clause nor the wider contract defined “City sewer services.” The Court of Appeals referred to dictionary definitions of “city,” “sewer,” and “services” to ascertain the “plain and ordinary meaning” of the term as used in the agreement.

The infrastructure Cadillac installed on the Boersma parcel merely collects sewage in a holding structure, and leaves the sewage on the property. It does not “carry off waste water and refuse” to another location—the dictionary definition of what a “sewer” does…. The fact that Cadillac planned to upgrade the sewage infrastructure on the Boersma parcel militates against finding that the existing infrastructure satisfies the mandates of the early termination clause, because it indicates that Cadillac believes the existing infrastructure to be inadequate in some way—and perhaps not the “sewer” contemplated by the contract.

To meet the conditions of the agreement Cadillac must have installed a sewer pipeline that leads to the wastewater treatment plant within ten years of signing the agreement.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that the property “immediately reverted[ed]” to the Township.

Local ordinance permitted to define “available public sanitary sewer system” more broadly than state statute

by Victoria Heldt and Gary Taylor

Roger Newell and Arelene Newell v. Village of Otter Lake, County of Lapeer
(Michigan Court of Appeals, November 15, 2011)

The Newells own property in the Village of Otter Lake on which sits a structure with a working septic system.  In 2004, the Village created a special assessment for its public sanitary sewage system.  The Newells were assessed $10,475; however, they were of the opinion that the assessment should not be applied to them so they filed a complaint with the Michigan Tax Tribunal.  During the time between when the Newells filed their complaint and the time of their hearing, the Village enacted an ordinance that changed the definition of an “available public sanitary sewer system.”  Under the new definition any public sewer system that “crosses, adjoins, or abuts a parcel upon which a structure is located” is considered an “available public sewer system” regardless of how many feet the system was from the structure it services or could potentially service.  This ordinance differed from the previously governing state statute (MCL 333.12751 (c)), which “available public sanitary sewer system as  “a public sanitary sewer system located in a right of way, easement, highway, street, or public way which crosses, adjoins, or abuts upon the property and passing not more than 200 feet at the nearest point from a structure in which sanitary sewage originates.”

At the Tax Tribunal trial, the Newells argued that the assessment was unjust because they received no benefit from the sewer system (they did not connect to it, nor did they need to connect to it).  The tribunal upheld the assessment and the Newells paid it.   Since they did not connect to the system, however, they refused to pay the operation and maintenance fees that were due each quarter thereafter.  When they were notified of their delinquency on the operation and maintenance fees, the Newells filed a claim in circuit court arguing that the ordinance was preempted by the previously governing state statute, that the fee violated the Headlee Amendment, and that the assessment violated the right to equal protection under the Michigan Constitution.  The court ruled in favor of the Village, finding that the preemption claim could have been resolved in the tax tribunal hearing so the court was prohibited from ruling on it.  Additionally it found that, although a municipality is not allowed to enact ordinances that conflict with state statutes, it is free to make ordinances that expand on them.

On appeal, the Newells again made a preemption claim arguing that the state statute preempted the Village’s ordinance.  They were of the opinion that they were not required to connect to the public sewer system (per the state statute MCL 333.12751 (c)) because their structure was located more than 200 feet from it.  The Court disagreed, finding that the Village’s ordinance was not in conflict with the state statute but merely expanded on it, which is allowable.  Thus, the Village’s ordinance was not preempted by the state statue.  The Court further noted that, in matters of public health such as a sewer system, municipalities act as an agent of the state in the regulation of such systems.

Citing People v. Llewellyn, the Newells additionally argued that this area of regulation was one in which state law has exclusive jurisdiction.  This argument rested on the fact that MCL 333.12751 was not included in the list of sections that the statute specified as being expandable by municipalities.  The Court rejected this argument, finding that the statute clearly anticipated changes by local governments.  It further found that the fact that the section was not listed did not equal a declaration that the state’s statutes were the exclusive governing power in that area.

The Newells also argued that the fee violated the Headlee Act, which prohibits municipalities from enacting a tax that was not authorized by state law, and from increasing an already authorized tax without a majority vote.  The Court found that since the fee is “serving a regulatory and not a revenue-raising purpose,” it is not considered a tax.  Consequently, the Headlee Act does not apply to it.  The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the Village.

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