by Hannah Dankbar
Schultz v Mende, et al. and City of Madison Lake
Minnesota Court of Appeals, December 8, 2014
In July 2007 the Mendes applied for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to build a boathouse on their property in the City of Madison Lake, Minnesota. The city council approved and issued the permit “with the condition that at the time of sale conditional use will be reviewed” and that the use follow all applicable provisions of the zoning code. In April 2008 the city found out that the Mendes were selling the property. The city sent a letter to remind the Mendes that the property could only be used as explicitly described in the CUP, and the CUP did not allow for human habitation of the property. Chapter 5, Subd. 4(b)(1)(D) of the city ordinance provides that boathouses cannot be used as a dwellings and cannot contain sanitary facilities.
In Spring 2008 Schultz bought the property from the Mendes believing that he could park a RV or camper on the property to sleep in while using the boathouse. The city told Schultz that, “since the conditional use was granted solely for a boat house and not for any type of residential use, parking a recreational vehicle on this property is a violation of the conditional use permit and an illegal use.” In February 2009, the city reiterated this statement. In August 2009 Schultz asked to amend the CUP; the city denied the application.
In response Schultz brought an action against the Mendes arguing that they misrepresented the use of property. The Mendes responded by filing a complaint against the city, saying that the city’s position was unconstitutional and unenforceable and asked for a declaratory ruling to allow for an RV on the property. The district court found that the zoning ordinance did not preclude the use of an RV on the property, the RV being “clearly accessory and incidental to the primary purpose of the property, which is recreation.” The city appealed the decision.
The property is in an R-1 residential district, which generally allows for “low-density, single family residences and directly related complimentary uses.” The General District Provisions prohibit an individual from dwelling or residing in an “accessory building.” An “accessory building” is defined as “[a] use incidental to and on the same lot as a principal use.” The property does not meet the minimum size requirements to meet the standard for single family housing.
The city considered the RV an accessory building. The district court disagreed with this definition, stating that “buildings” is limited to permanent structures. On appeal the city argued that the district court substituted their own definition for what is provided for in the ordinance. The Court of Appeals agreed that there is room for interpretation in the definitions provided by the ordinance; however, in a separate section of the ordinance “recreational vehicle” is defined as “a vehicular portable structure used for amusement, vacation or recreational activities.” The Court of Appeals determined that implying that recreational vehicles are buildings, when recreational vehicle is specifically defined in the code is an improper interpretation of the ordinance.
The parties disagreed over the principal use of the property. Schultz and the Mendes say that the principal use is recreation, while the city claims it is the boathouse structure. The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court’s conclusion that the principal use is recreation. Given that the principal use of the property is recreation, the question then becomes whether the recreational vehicle is an allowable accessory use. The city argued that the recreational vehicle could only be used for storage (and not sleeping) because the boathouse – a facility for storing boats – was the principal use. Given the courts previous conclusion that the primary use was recreation, the city’s argument was inappropriate. Under a plain reading of the ordinance, both RVs and boathouses are permissible accessory uses to the primary recreational use. RVs are accessory uses as long as they carry a current registration and are in “operable condition.” Boat houses are also allowed as long as they are not “designed or used for human habitation” and do not “contain water supply or sewage treatment facilities.”
Because the zoning ordinances are ambiguous and the city’s interpretations leads to an “absurd result” the Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling in favor of the Mendes.