Consistent with a plan, but not enough – not now

by Gary Taylor

Francis, et.al. v. Bremer County Board of Supervisors
(Iowa Court of Appeals, October 21, 2009)

Showing of consistency with the comprehensive plan does not result in an automatic right to rezoning. 

J.D. Francis purchased approximately 35 acres north of Waverly, Iowa.  The land was zoned agricultural but most of it was designated for future single-family residential use by the Bremer County comprehensive plan.  Approximately four acres of the property was designated as “prime agricultural land” under the plan with a Corn Suitability Rating (CSR) above 50. 

Francis sought to rezone the non-prime agricultural land for residential development.  This land had a CSR of 49.5.  The Bremer County Planning and Zoning Commission found that the land was in a “planned growth area” under the plan, but nonetheless recommended denial of the rezoning request, citing citizen concerns about “current water supplies, runoff, number of drives along 190th Street, increased traffic, a possible sink hole in the area, productivity of the land, quality of life, septic system drainage, and not wanting more neighbors.”  The Bremer County Board of Supervisors followed the Commission’s recommendation and denied the rezoning.  Francis sued.

Francis asserted that the board of supervisors acted illegally in rejecting their rezoning petition because the land for which they sought rezoning had a lower CSR than the comprehensive plan’s rating for prime agricultural land, and was in an area designated for residential growth; i.e., that the requested rezoning was consistent with the comprehensive plan.  While agreeing with the general proposition that a county with a comprehensive plan must abide by that plan when making zoning decisions, the Court of Appeals also stated that “strict adherence to the statements [in a comprehensive plan] could actually negate other objectives of the plan.”  Citing the district court’s decision affirming the rezoning denial, the court stated,

“Just because a land owner demonstrates that a proposed use is consistent with a comprehensive plan does not mean, ipso facto, that the land owner is entitled to the zoning change….It remains for the board of supervisors to determine when, if at all, growth consistent with the comprehensive plan should occur.”

While the Court of Appeals admitted that the reasons for the denial stated in the record were “sparse,” it nonetheless determined that the comprehensive plan did not mandate a residential designation for land with a CSR of less than 50.  The plan does state that the county will “strive to preserve agricultural land, placing emphasis on” areas with a CSR of 50 or greater.  The plan lists other factors for consideration aside from agricultural land protection, such as the “protection of environmental features and sensitive areas” and the “quality of life.”

Justice Miller filed an opinion concurring in the result, but finding fault with the majority’s reasoning.  He particularly took issue with the fact that the board of supervisors, almost simultaneously, approved a similar rezoning request for a tract of land known as the Lakefield Estates Subdivision.  Justice Miller compared several relevant factors among the two requests:

(1) the comprehensive plan designates the Francis tract for future residential development, but identifies the Lakefield Estates tract as one that should remain agricultural;
(2) the Francis tract has a CSR of less than 50, while the Lakefield Estates land has a CSR greater than 64;
(3) the Francis tract has numerous nearby residences, while the area surrounding the Lakefield Estates land remains predominately agricultural;
(4) the Francis tract is adjacent to a blacktop highway, while the Lakefield Estates tract does not have direct access to a paved road;
(5) the Lakefield Estates tract is in a floodplain, while the Francis tract is not.

Nevertheless, Justice Miller concurred in the result despite the fact that the board’s two decisions “may be difficult or impossible to reconcile….It may be the board’s approval of the Lakefield Estates…rezoning…and not its denial of the Francis request, that arguably violates the comprehensive plan.”

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