Wisconsin’s bright line “building permit rule” precludes takings claim

by Hannah Dankbar

McKee Family, LLC and JD McCormick Company, LLC v City of Fitchburg
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, November 5, 2015

The City of Fitchburg rezoned property owned by McKee before McKee was able to apply for a building permit. The rezoning reclassified the property from Planned Development District (PDD), which allows high-density and mixed-use development, to Residential-Medium (R-M) district, which permits lower-density development. McKee argued that McKee had a vested right in the preexisting zoning designation and that the rezoning constituted a taking. The lower court concluded that McKee did not have a vested right in the preexisting zoning classification, and McKee appealed.

In Fitchburg, before a property owner can develop land under a PDD classification they have to go through multiple steps including: submitting a proposed general implementation plan to be approved by the City’s Plan Commission and the Fitchburg Common Council; if approved the property owner submits a specific implementation plan before applying for a building permit.  Fitchburg approved the lots in question in 1994 when the McKee’s predecessor owned the lots. In 2008 JD McCormick, working with McKee, submitted the specific implementation plan while two Fitchburg alders petitioned the City to rezone the property. After public hearings, and before reviewing the specific implementation plan, the Council rezoned the property. THe rezoning took effect before any commission review of the specific implementation plan.  The Council concluded that the rezoning was “in the best interest of maintaining a stable surrounding neighborhood to reduce the lots.”  The primary issue was whether McKee had obtained a vested right in the preexisting zoning designation, despite not being eligible for and not applying for a building permit.

The court concluded that there is no vested right based on Wisconsin’s bright-line “building permit rule.”  Wisconsin focuses on building permits and applications for permits to define the point at which a property owner develops a vested interest in the property. Neither McCormick nor McKee ever applied for or received a building permit. McKee argued that Wis. Stat. § 62.23(7) creates private contractual rights for developers, but the Court did not interpret the statute that way. There is nothing in the statute that obligates a municipality to maintain a specified zoning designation. To the contrary the statute authorizes municipalities to amend or repeal zoning designations as long as they follow specific procedures (§62.23(7)(d)(2) and (3)).  McKee argued that they made multiple investments in the property without applying for the permit and these investments demonstrate a vested right and a contract with the City. The court rejected this argument in a prior Wisconsin Supreme Court case, and likewise rejected it here.  The trial court determination was upheld.

“Substantially similar” new construction in floodplain is not the same as elevating existing structure authorized by permit

by Victoria Heldt

Delbert E. Johnson and Nancy L. Johnson v. Pierce County Zoning Board of Adjustment
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, March 6, 2012)

The Johnsons own a piece of property that abuts the Mississippi River in Pierce County, Wisconsin.  It is undisputed that the area is a floodplain and, therefore, the Johnsons’ mobile home, screened-in porch, and deck are nonconforming uses under Pierce County’s zoning ordinances.  In April 2010 James Kleinhans (the county zoning administrator) issued the Johnsons a land use permit to floodproof the existing structures on the property.  The permit consisted of the application, a materials list, and a hand-drawn plan of the project.  The plan ordered for the elevation of all three structures onto a new concrete foundation.

In June 2010, Kleinhans observed that the Johnsons’ construction did not conform to the plan.  The screen porch was still sitting on the ground and a new structure had essentially been built where the mobile home previously sat.  It did not resemble the preexisting mobile home or deck so Kleinhans rescinded the permit and issued a stop work order.  The Johnsons appealed the decision to the Pierce County Zoning Board of Adjustment (Board) arguing that the construction did not violate the permit.  They testified that the preexisting mobile home had been destroyed by a flood before the permit was issued, so they could not elevate it in its ruined state.  They also claimed that Kleinhans was aware that the Johnsons did not plan to elevate the entire structure when he issued the permit.  They stated they tried to incorporate as much of the old structure as possible (windows, siding, paneling) in reconstruction.  Kleinhans responded by saying that if he had known the Johnsons were not elevating the existing structure in its previous state he would not have issued the permit.  The Board concluded that the Johnsons used the permit to construct a “substantially different building” and upheld the revocation of the permit.  The circuit court affirmed the Board’s decision.  The Johnsons appealed.

The Johnsons argued several points.  First, the Johnsons contended that the Board proceeded on an incorrect theory of law.  They argued that the county’s zoning ordinance does not comply with Wis. Stat. §§ 59.69 and 59.692.  The Johnsons argued that specifically ch. 238 of the Pierce County zoning code conflicts with the previously mentioned Wis. Stat.  The Court pointed out, however, that the Johnsons relied on language within that section of the zoning code to support their argument later in the appeal.  The Johnsons may not argue that a part of the zoning code conflicts with statute while simultaneously relying on the code for their argument.  The Court noted further that the Johnsons did not make this claim before the Board and therefore forfeited the right to raise the argument on appeal.

The Johnsons argued that the structure they built was “substantially similar” to the original structure and, therefore, was not a violation of the permit.  The Court ruled that, since the Johnsons provided no legal authority for the notion that a “substantially similar” structure is allowable under a permit, it would not consider the argument.  The Court concluded that the Board did not act on an incorrect theory of law.

The Johnsons claimed that the evidence presented did not support the Board’s conclusion.  To begin its analysis, the Court acknowledged that deference is given to an agency’s decision on appeal and that “the Board is the sole judge of the weight and credibility of the evidence presented.”  The Court found that the evidence presented did indeed support the Board’s decision.  The permit issued allowed the Johnsons to elevate the existing structures and observation showed that the Johnsons instead constructed a new structure.  Johnson confirmed that he did not elevate the previously existing structure because it was ruined.  He also failed to dispute that the new structure did not include the previous porch and deck or that the Johnsons were attempting to sell the porch.  Photographs were submitted in support of all these facts.

The Johnsons further argued that the Board improperly disregarded Johnson’s testimony in which he claimed that Kleinhans already knew of his plan to modify the structure.  The Court noted that the Board is the proper judge of witnesses’ credibility and that it apparently found Kleinhans’ testimony more credible.  The Johnsons also claimed that the Board could not rely on Kleinhans’ testimony because he was never sworn in.  The Court responded by stating that the rules of evidence do not apply in administrative procedures.  Furthermore, the letter sent to the Johnsons and the record of the permit provided sufficient evidence that the Johnsons’ activities did not comply with the permit.  The Johnsons finally argued that the materials list attached to the permit served as evidence that Kleinhans authorized the new construction.  The Court pointed to Kleinhans’ testimony in which he admitted that some new construction was allowed under the permit only because “the new foundation’s footprint was slightly larger than that of the existing structures.”  Nevertheless, the primary purpose of the permit was to allow floodproofing to existing structures.  The Court rejected the argument that the Board’s decision was unsupported by the evidence.

Finally, the Johnsons purported that the Board’s decision was arbitrary, oppressive, and unreasonable.  The Johnsons first support the argument by stating that the decision was based on an incorrect theory of law and was unsupported by the evidence.  The Court already rejected those arguments in previous sections.  The Johnsons also claim that the decision prevents them from using their property and renders the property useless.  The Court noted that the Johnsons did not provide any support for these claims and that the Johnsons never asserted these claims before the Board.  They also failed to explain why the alleged uselessness of their property should allow them to violate their permit.  The Court found that the Board appropriately considered the evidence and came to a reasonable conclusion.  It affirmed the Board’s revocation of the Johnson’s permit.

No property interest exists, when no building permit application has been filed

by Victoria Heldt

American Central City, Inc., v. Joint Antelope Valley Authority
(Nebraska Supreme Court, June 17, 2011)

Edward Patterson, the owner and sole shareholder of American Central City, Inc. (ACC), owned three properties and claimed a compensable property interest in properties owned by Edward and Dorothy Schwartzkopf, which are located in the same neighborhood.  Patterson based his claim of interest on an option to purchase the Schwartzkopf’s property on the condition that he obtain a building permit.  He planned to construct a building that would sit both on his property and on theirs.  All of these properties were condemned as a part of the Antelope Valley project, which was designed to provide Lincoln with flood control, transportation improvements, and community revitalization.   Patterson claimed he was not properly compensated after the condemnation of the properties and that his substantive due process rights were affected during the trial process.

Patterson argued that he had a compensable property interest in a building permit he wanted to obtain because he spent considerable time and money planning and designing the building.  He claimed that city officials falsely informed him that it would not be possible to build underground parking or place underground telecommunications on the property, and that this information prevented him from going forward with this plans and affected his substantive due process rights.  The Court noted that the granting of a building permit does not give a property owner the right to build or a property interest in the permit.  The Court further recognized that Patterson never actually filed for the permit.  In light of this, it concluded that that the law does not recognize a property interest in a permit that was  never filed.

Patterson also claimed an interest in the Schwartzkopf properties because of the 1995 option to purchase.  Once Patterson failed to obtain a permit, both parties signed a release agreement excusing them from performance.  Then in 2004, the property was sold to JAVA.  Patterson claimed he still had an oral agreement to buy the property even after the release was signed in 1995.  The Court found that he had no compensable interest in the property because the oral agreement would not stand up in court.  The sale of land is subject to the statute of frauds and must be in writing.  Patterson further argued that his case falls under one of the exceptions to the statute of frauds (partial performance) since he incurred expenses and invested time in the planning and designing of the building.  The Court found that any oral agreement Patterson had was with the Schwartzkopf’s, and cannot be enforced against JAVA.

Patterson further argued that the government engaged in inverse condemnation, which means that the government took property without proper compensation or proper condemnation proceedings.  He claimed the government prevented him from putting his property to the “highest and best use” by preventing him from obtaining a building permit and that this qualified as inverse condemnation.  Without the building permit, he could not purchase the Schwartzkopf properties in order to develop his properties as planned.  The Court noted that this claim rested partially on the belief that he had a property interest in the building permit and the Schwartzkopf properties, but as stated earlier he did not.  Additionally, it found that Patterson did not submit sufficient facts to establish that the government acted to prevent him from developing the land.

The Court dismissed all of Patterson’s claims and affirmed the decision of the district court.

Issuance of building permit by Minneapolis planner a discretionary function

by Melanie Thwing

Harmsen v. City of Minneapolis
(Minnesota Court of Appeals, Aug 24, 2010)

The Harmsens own numerous rental properties near the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. Wishing to build more rentals, they purchased a single family home and filed for a demolition permit as well as a building permit for a new duplex to be built in its place.

City planners in Minneapolis approve 1-4 unit dwellings, which for building permits requires the planners to complete a checklist. Required criteria include the site plan, zoning classification and interior/exterior plans. The Harmsen’s plans met the checklist, and McCartney, who is a senior city planner approved both permits; however, according to the Minneapolis zoning ordinance duplexes must be constructed on a lot with at least 10,000 square feet, unless an existing duplex is being replaced.  The lot that was purchased did not meet this requirement, but McCartney did not check into the existing structure before issuing the permits.  The existing structure was demolished and a foundation for the duplex was poured.  Soon after, neighborhood groups contacted the city with concerns. On May 29th the city revoked the permit via letter (the letter was dated May 8th ) and on May 30th a stop-work order was posted.

After the Harmsen’s request for a variance was denied, they filed suit in district court. Summary judgment was granted for the city on the grounds of the doctrine of discretionary immunity.  The district court determined there was a lack of evidence sufficient to support Harmsen’s claim of equitable estoppel. The Harmsens then appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the district court erred in granting summary judgment.

Discretionary immunity is given for discretionary functions, which typically include planning-level decisions involving weighing social, political, and economic factors. This however, does not include day-to-day ministerial functions of the government. Previous Minnesota caselaw has affirmed that the issuance of a building permit is a discretionary function because an employee must “make a judgment as to whether plans submitted in support of the application for the permit constitutes a permissible use of the property in the area involved.”  The Harmsen’s argue that use of a checklist does not constitute the use of discretion. After reviewing the checklist the Court concluded that city planners are trusted to make a number of discretionary decisions in the permit granting process. 

The Harmsens pointed out that a narrow exception to the rule was articulated by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Snyder v. City Minneapolis.  Under Snyder, “ city employees do not have the discretion to approve permits in clear violation of the law, and an applicant cannot reasonably be charged with knowledge of violation if the city maintains an unwritten policy contrary to published law.” The Harmsen’s first argue under Snyder that the city was negligent when it issued the permits and that thus this was not a discretionary function. Further the Harmsen’s argue that there are unwritten guidelines when approving certain permits that allow a little bit of latitude on lot sizes. The Court of Appeals found that the Harmsens did not present any evidence to to substantiate this clam. Further § 546.410 had been in place since 1995, and the Harmsen’s own many properties in the area. Again, the court rejects the precedent from Snyder and the city maintains its discretionary immunity.

Finally the Harmsen’s argue that the city should be equitably estopped from denying the permit because they relied in good faith on the city. An equitable estoppel may be given when the owners “(1) rely in good faith (2) upon some act or omission of the government, (3) and have made such a substantial change in position or incurred such extensive obligations and expenses that it would be highly inequitable and unjust to destroy the rights which he ostensibly had acquired.”  For this claim, the Harmsen’s sole claim of municipal misconduct was that the city held the revocation letter from May 8th when it was dated, to May 29th when it was sent.  McCartney testified, however, that she did not learn of the problem until shortly before the letter was sent. Electronic evidence also proved this. The Court of Appeals found that this alone was not a sufficient showing of malfeasance to warrant equitable estoppel. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court.

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