Action of Amana Colonies Land Use Board of Trustees in approving hotel and convention complex was quasi-judicial

by Gary Taylor

Catherin Oehl, et al, v. Amana Colonies Land Use District Board of Trustees
(Iowa Court of Appeals, March 26, 2014)

(Note: For those Iowans curious about the history of the special land use legislation affecting the Amana Colonies, Iowa Code 303.41 et seq.,  the facts of this case are repeated in detail.)

The Amana Colonies are unincorporated villages in Iowa County. In 1932, the Amana Society, a private corporation, owned the 26,000 acres in which the Amana Colonies are located. Development within the Amana Colonies was effectively managed by deed restrictions and covenants. In 1982, the Iowa Supreme Court held that land use restrictions in the deeds were invalid and unenforceable, effectively nullifying the informal land use control system governing development within the Amana Colonies. In response, the Iowa legislature authorized the creation of special land use districts for the purpose of preserving the “distinctive historical and cultural character” of the districts so created.*** Although the statutory language authorizing the creation of land use districts is phrased in general terms, the definition of eligible districts and legislative history make clear that the statute was created specifically to allow the residents of the Amana Colonies, collectively, to manage development in their historically and culturally significant community in a manner consistent with community traditions and values.

Voters in the Amana Colonies approved the creation of the Amana Colonies Land Use District (ACLUD), and elected a seven-member Board of Trustees. The Board adopted a Land Use Plan that emphasizes historic preservation. The Land Use Plan provides for the creation of Historic Preservation Districts (HPD). The Land Use Plan also establishes an Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) tasked with consideration of applications for Certificates of Approval (COA) for “[a]ny construction, alteration, demolition, or removal affecting a significant exterior architectural feature of any structure within an HPD.” The Board may issue a COA for construction of a structure in an HPD after review and recommendation by the HPC.

In May 2010, the Cutlers applied for a COA to build a hotel, convention center, and banquet complex as additions to their restaurant.  The HPC unanimously approved the proposal and sent it to the Board, where it was tabled for 12 months while multiple hearings were held.  The Appellants in this case opposed the COA and presented their views at these hearings. Then in 2011 the Cutlers presented an update application.  The HPC forwarded to the Board without a recommendation.  The Board initially voted 3-3 on that application, but after the Cutlers made changes to the proposal the Board reconsidered and voted 4-2 in favor of the application.  The COA was issued and the Appellants appealed to the ACLUD Board of Adjustment (BOA), which under Iowa Code 303.54 is empowered to “make special exceptions to the terms of the land use plan which are in harmony with its general purpose and intent and in accordance with the general or specific rules of the plan.”  The BOA determined it did not have the authority “to review and overturn the essentially legislative decision of the Board of Trustees to grant applications such as that of the Cutlers.”  Appellants then challenged the COA itself in a declaratory action filed in district court approximately 105 days after the issuance of the COA, and 70 days after the BOA decision. The district court dismissed the case as improper and untimely.

The Iowa Supreme Court stated in Sutton v. Dubuque that a certiorari action (as opposed to a declaratory action) is the exclusive remedy for challenging a quasi-judicial action, and such actions must be filed within 30 days of the decision being challenged.  The question in the present case, therefore, was whether the action of the Board of Trustees in issuing the COA was a quasi-judicial action.  The Court of Appeals determined that it was.  A tribunal is exercising quasi-judicial authority when “(1) the questioned act involves a proceeding in which notice and an opportunity to be heard are required; (2) a determination of rights of parties is made which requires the exercise of discretion in finding facts and applying the law thereto; or (3) the challenged act goes to the determination of some right the protection of which is the peculiar office of the courts.”  The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the Land Use Plan declares determinations about COAs to be “legislative policy determinations,” but further recognized from prior caselaw that it “must look to the nature of the act regardless of the label applied to it.”  In reviewing the record the court agreed that contentions by the Appellants that the Cutlers’ proposal did not meet several requirements found in the Land Use Plan – including those for yard size and parking – were all complaints that the Board did not properly apply the facts to the regulations – “complaints arising out of the Board’s quasi-judicial functions and not its legislative functions.”  Because the Board’s decision was quasi-judicial in nature, the Appellants’ failure to file a certiorari action in a timely manner warranted dismissal of the case.

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 *** 303.41  Eligibility and purpose.

A land use district shall not be created under this subchapter unless it is an area of contiguous territory encompassing twenty thousand acres or more of predominately rural and agricultural land owned by a single entity which has within its general boundaries at least seven platted villages which are not incorporated as municipalities at the time the district is organized. The eligible electors may create a land use district to conserve the distinctive historical and cultural character and peculiar suitability of the area for particular uses with a view to conserving the value of all existing and proposed structures and land and to preserve the quality of life of those citizens residing within the boundaries of the contiguous area by preserving its historical and cultural quality.

 

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