by Gary Taylor
Iowa Court of Appeals, January 25, 2023
Built in 1876, the former Unitarian Church in Keokuk had fallen into serious disrepair by 2005. That year the city sent a letter to the church’s owner – Christ Vision – asking the owner to address deteriorating brick and falling moldings. Christ Vision took no action for three years, so the city delcared the building unsafe to occupy in 2008, informing Christ Vision that “no person shall remain in or enter any building that has been so posted except to enter for repair or demolish….” Christ Vision representatives spoke with city officials numerous times, and presented (unfunded) plans for rehabilitation, but by December 2016 Christ Vision still had made no repairs. By then the church had gaping holes in the roof, fallen plaster and bricks, depressions in the floor, water in the basement, and other serious deficiencies. The city filed for a declaration of nuisance, and after a hearing the district court found in December 2016 that the church’s hazardous condition constituted a nuisance and ordered abatement. The court told Christ Vision that, at a minimum, the roof would need to be replaced and “any hazardous conditions with the structure that make it unsafe to occupy” would need to be fixed. Otherwise, the building would need to be demolished or deeded to the city. The court ordered Christ Vision to create a written abatement plan with a timeline by March 2017, but when that did not happen, and had not happened even by October 2017, the city approved a contract for the church’s demolition. Christ Vision applied for a temporary injunction, but (and i am skipping some irrelevant facts here) the city began demolition before the hearing on the injunction. Two years later Christ Vision filed this lawsuit, alleging a taking, trespass, and conversion of personal property.
Taking. Christ Vision alleged that the city’s nuisance action amounted to an illegal taking; however, the Court of Appeals noted that in City of Eagle Grove v. Cahalan, 904 N.W.2d 552, 561 (Iowa 2017) the Iowa Supreme Court held that the state’s exercise of its related police powers over abandoned property did not constitute a taking, even though Eagle Grove’s action denied the owner of “all economically beneficial or productive” use of the property. The Court of Appeals confirmed that a landowner has no vested property right in a nuisance, and so in demolishing the church in compliance with an unchallenged court order (the December 2016 order) the city did not take anything. “Bottom line, Keokuk could enforce its nuisance law without compensating Christ Vision for its losses stemming from that enforcement.”
Due Process. Christ Vision did not did not contest contest the procedural history of the December 2016 order, but rather insisted that the order did not automatically authorize demolition of the church once the March 2017 deadline was missed. It argued that the city then needed to Follow Chapter 657A before it could demolish the building. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that Iowa Code 657A.11(2) states “This chapter does not prevent a person from using other remedies or procedures to enforce building or housing ordinances or to correct or remove public nuisances.” The city followed its own nuisance ordinance and state law. The fact that the city demolished the church prior to the hearing on the temporary injunction was of no effect because there was not yet an injunction in place, meaning it was still lawful for the city to proceed under the December 2016 order.
Trespass and conversion. Because Christ Vision did not challenge the court’s authority to permit the city to demolish the building once the owner missed the abatement deadline the city was within its rights to enter the premises. “[C]onduct otherwise a trespass is often justifiable by reason of authority vested in the person who does the act.” Nothing in the December 2016 order imposed on the city a duty to help preserve the church; to the contrary, the onus was on Christ Vision to take action. As for the claim of conversion, Christ Vision claimed the city interfered with its right to personal property by demolishing the church with the property still inside. There was no evidence, however, that Christ Vision requested access to the church to remove personal property once it knew demolition was imminent or any time prior.