District court sides with Cedar Falls on remand of bad faith zoning claim

by Gary Taylor

Thanks to Marty Ryan with Cedar Falls, and Brian Schoon of Iowa Northland Regional Council of Governments for alerting me to the district court’s opinion.

Last July in the case of Geisler v. City of Cedar Falls (link to my post about the case, including the underlying facts, here) the  Iowa Supreme Court validated the use of moratoria as a planning tool, and also elaborated on Iowa’s vested rights doctrine; however, the court had an insufficient factual record to make a determination about whether the city acted in bad faith when it denied Giesler’s application to develop an eight-unit apartment complex on land formerly occupied by two single-family dwellings.  In the process it identified the relevant questions to determine bad faith zoning: (1) whether the city illegally denied the application, and (2) did so with an improper purpose. The Supreme Court laid out markers for determining both illegality and improper purpose.

  • The denial, without any legal justification, of an application that clearly meets all the requirements of the then-existing ordinance is illegal.
  • An improper purpose exists when a zoning authority adopts a new zoning regulation designed to frustrate a particular applicant’s plans for development; however, the fact that a zoning change is already being contemplated before the particular request is made tends to vitiate a claim of bad faith.

On September 2 the Black Hawk County District Court issued its decision on remand, siding with Cedar Falls on the bad faith issue.  As to the illegality of the denial, the court noted that the decision was consistent with the language set forth in the applicable overlay zoning district, because the proposed site plan was not consistent with the character of the neighborhood due to its architectural style and its scall in relation to adjoining properties. “There is nothing in the neighborhood that is similar in size or scope to that [apartment complex] proposed by Geisler.”

On the question of improper purpose the court noted that several witnesses testified that the city had been contemplating for sometime a review and modification of the overlay district provisions.  Based on this fact the court could not conclude that the city denied the site plan to improperly produce a delay to give the council more time to enact a new ordinance that would prohibit the requested use.  With the burden falling on Geisler to prove bad faith, his “claim must fail.”

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