Posting unapproved minutes with ZBA decision does not start the clock for purposes of filing appeal

by Eric Christianson

Burroughs v. Davenport ZBA
(Iowa Supreme Court, May 25, 2018)

To operate a daycare in the City of Davenport one must obtain a special use permit from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA).  In March 2014, the ZBA granted Tiny Tots Learning Center a permit. Tiny Tots closed its doors in late 2014, and in July 2016 a new lessee of the premises, Mz Annie-Ru Daycare Center, opened at the same location. The new day care center supervises more children and is open for longer hours than Tiny Tots was. The Davenport Zoning Administrator determined the special use permit issued to Tiny Tots “run[s] with the land” and the new daycare center would not need to obtain another special use permit.

Burroughs along with other neighbors disagreed and appealed that decision to the Board of Adjustment. On October 13 the ZBA voted 4-0 to uphold the administrator’s decision that the special use permit continued to apply. After that hearing, staff advised the residents that they could file a petition to revoke the special use permit. They did so and on December 8 the board held a public hearing to determine if the permit should be revoked. The BOA voted 0-4 against revoking the permit. Shortly after both of these meetings city staff posted unofficial minutes to the city’s website; however, they were not officially approved until the subsequent meeting of the ZBA.

On January 25, Burroughs along with five other residents appealed these decisions to District Court claiming that the ZBA had acted improperly in refusing to revoke the permit. The City filed a motion to dismiss the case, asserting that the petition was untimely because it was not filed within thirty days of the challenged decisions.

Iowa Code 414.15 states:

Any person […] aggrieved by any decision of the board of adjustment […] may present to a court of record a petition […] Such petition shall be presented to the court within thirty days after the filing of the decision in the office of the board.

The district court granted the City’s motion. Considering the posting of the minutes online to be the “filing of the decision.” Because the minutes of the December 8 meeting were posted on December 19th. The appeal on January 25th was untimely.

The court concluded that the:

“thirty-day time period begins to run from the time the appealing party has either actual knowledge or is chargeable with knowledge of the decision to be appealed.”  Because it was “undisputed” that plaintiffs attended both the October 13 and the December 8 meetings, they had actual knowledge of the Board’s decisions as of those dates: “[T]he Court cannot hold that they did not have actual knowledge or chargeable knowledge of the decision which they witnessed firsthand.”

 

Burroughs and the other plaintiffs appealed this dismissal.

The Iowa Supreme Court considered four possibilities of when the decision was “filed” in this case:

  1. The time that the decision is made in a public meeting wherein the parties gain “actionable knowledge.”
  2. When the unofficial minutes of the meeting are posted to the city websites.
  3. When approved official minutes have been posted online.
  4. When a signed physical document is present in the offices of the BOA and available for public inspection.

Both parties had an initial and fallback opinion. The city argued that the decision was “filed” at the meeting when the vote was taken and the parties were aware of the action. If that was not accepted, then they argued that the posting of the unofficial meeting minutes online should be considered filing the decision.

The plaintiffs argued principally that that for a decision to be filed it had to be a physical signed document including findings of fact and available for public inspection at the board’s offices. By this argument neither the October 13th decision nor the December 8th decisions had ever been properly filed and thus could still be appealed. If the court did not accept this argument, then they argued that only the posting of the approved minutes online could be considered “filing.” This fallback position would only preserve the December 8th refusal to revoke the permit for appeal as the approved minutes containing that decision were not posted until January 6th.

The court gave a few principles that can be used to determine when a ZBA decision has been filed and, therefore, how long plaintiffs have to appeal.

First, a decision cannot be simply oral.  It must exist in some documentary form. Simply having knowledge of what the decision is is not sufficient.

Second, the decision can be filed in electronic rather than paper form. The plaintiffs in this case tried to argue that a public document must be physical. The court disagreed indicating that in fact most of the Court’s own documents exist only digitally.

Third, a document has been filed in the “office of the board” when it has been posted on the board’s publicly available website that the board uses as a repository for official documents. The “office of the board” does not have to be a single physical location as long as the documents are accessible to the public.

Finally, the thirty-day period is triggered when the board posts the decision on its public website.  However, what is posted must be an actual decision.  Proposed minutes that have not yet been approved do not constitute a decision, but approved minutes do.

The Supreme Court of Iowa reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the December 8th ZBA decision. The case is remanded back to district court for further proceedings on the legality of that decision.

Court of Appeals affirms ZBA’s denial of liquor permit

by Eric Christianson

Shop N Save v. City of Des Moines Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, January 24, 2018)

Note: this is a separate case from Shop N Save v. City of Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment decided in August of 2017 year. Although both permits were denied at the same ZBA meeting citing much of the same evidence, they concern separate Shop N Save locations.

Shop N Save operates a convenience store located on Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway in Des Moines. As a limited food / retail sales establishment, it may derive no more than forty percent of its gross sale receipts from the sale of liquor, wine, beer, and tobacco products. In March 2015, Shop N Save applied for a conditional use permit to operate as a liquor store, which would eliminate the store’s limit on gross sales receipts from the sale of those products.

At the zoning board of adjustment hearing held in April 2015, city staff recommended denial of the permit, and neighbors testified of crime and nuisance issues associated with liquor sales at the location. The board also noted the close proximity of the liquor store to residential property.

Based on this testimony and the proximity to residential uses, the board voted to deny the permit.

In May of 2015 Shop N Save appealed to district court arguing that the board illegally denied the permit. The district court affirmed the decision finding that the board had relied on substantial evidence to deny the permit. Shop N Save appealed again to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals examined the case to determine if the Zoning Board of Adjustment acted within its authority in denying the permit.

According to the City of Des Moines’s zoning ordinance a conditional use permit must be show to conform to the following criteria:

  1. The business conforms with [zoning restrictions].
  2. The proposed location, design, construction and operation of the particular use adequately safeguards the health, safety and general welfare of persons residing in the adjoining or surrounding residential area.
  3. The business is sufficiently separated from the adjoining residential area by distance, landscaping, walls or structures to prevent any noise, vibration or light generated by the business from having a significant detrimental impact upon the adjoining residential uses.
  4. The business will not unduly increase congestion on the streets in the adjoining residential area.
  5. The operation of the business will not constitute a nuisance.

Failure to comply with any one of these conditions is fatal to the application.

Shop N Save argues that the denial was not supported by substantial evidence because “only four individuals” spoke against the permit, and all of the issues raised took place when the store was under previous ownership.

The court disagrees, finding that the testimony of the neighbors in addition to an additional email from the neighborhood association were substantial evidence that issuing the permit could create a nuisance. The court states that Shop N Save’s assertions that things would be better in the future could have reasonably been accepted by the board, but they were not and that is within the board’s discretion.

Because the ZBA’s ultimate decision was supported by substantial evidence. The boards decision is affirmed.

Substantial evidence supported ZBA’s denial of conditional use permit for liquor sales

by Gary Taylor

Shop N Save Food v. City of Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment
Iowa Court of Appeals, August 2, 2017

Shop N Save applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) that would allow the business to sell wine and beer.  The store in question is located in a C-1 neighborhood retail commercial district in Des Moines.  Previous owners of the store had been permitted to sell liquor, beer, and wine, but the store’s liquor license was suspended for the year leading up to the CUP application, and due to changes in the city’s zoning regulations the new owner was required to seek a CUP to resume alcohol sales.

At the beginning of the hearing on the CUP, city staff presented its report to the Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) recommending approval of the CUP subject to ten conditions.  Staff presented the ZBA with letters from local neighborhood associations, as well as police reports from the neighborhood.  Staff noted, however, that the Shop N Save had either been closed or barred from selling alcohol for most or all of the time covered by the police reports.

Counsel for Shop N Save, in his presentation, conceded “there had been problems in the past” with crime around this Shop N Save, but asserted the new owner was willing to work with the neighborhood associations to address those problems.  In responding to the testimony of the neighborhood association representatives that voiced concerns about crime, Shop N Save counsel resisted their recommendations for the imposition of conditions over and above those recommended by staff, and suggested the best course would be to “come up with a plan together.”

ZBA members questioned the legitimacy of the ownership transfer. Shop N Save counsel acknowledged that the store was being run by “a combination of [old and new management] but it’s generally the new management…running the store” and admitted that the official transfer of ownership had not yet occurred.

In a 4-1 vote the ZBA denied the CUP, citing concerns about the ambiguity in the ownership transfer and the problematic history of the location.  Shop N Save appealed this decision to the district court, which affirmed the denial, finding substantial evidence for the ZBA’s decision.  Shop N Save appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals highlighted several well-settled points of law concerning the consideration of conditional use permits by zoning boards of adjustment, and by courts reviewing those decisions, that are worth reviewing:

  • A conditional use permit is meant to provide flexibility in what otherwise would be the rigidity of zoning ordinances, while at the same time controlling troublesome aspects of somewhat incompatible uses by requiring certain restrictions and standards.
  • It is the burden of the applicant to show that all the conditions of the ordinance are satisfied.
  • A decision by a zoning board of adjustment enjoys a strong presumption of validity.
  • A board may deny a conditional use permit for reasons relating to public health, safety, and welfare, but generalized or unsupported neighborhood opposition does not, by itself, provide a legally sufficient reason for a CUP denial.
  • If the reasonableness of the board’s action is open to a fair difference of opinion, the court may not substitute its decision for that of the board.
  • An appellate court is bound by the district court’s factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Evidence is “substantial” if a reasonable person would find it adequate to reach the given conclusion, even if a reviewing court might draw a contrary reference.

Shop N Save argued that the ordinance requirement that “the proposed location, design, construction and operation of the particular use adequately safeguards the health, safety, and general welfare of persons residing in the adjoining or surrounding residential area” may not even apply to the sale of beer and wine because the sale of such products is separate from the “physical characteristics of the property.”  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, finding that the language is broad enough to regulate not only the location, design, and construction of the business but its operation as well.  The Court further found that the ZBA’s denial was based on more than generalized or unsupported neighborhood opposition, and included reliance on specific incidents described in neighbors’ testimonies, and on the dramatic reduction in crime that resulted when liquor sales were ended at a similarly situated convenience store in another neighborhood.  Finally, the Court found the ZBA was well within its authority to consider the pending owners’ “tepid” responsiveness to neighbors’ serious reservations as a signal that past problems were likely to continue into the future, regardless of any conditions the ZBA could impose.

The ZBA’s denial was affirmed.

Diesel repair business met all criteria for conditional use permit in agricultural zone

Hortian, et al., Relators vs Fischer and Wright County Planning Commission
Minnesota Court of Appeals, December 7, 2015

In 2006 the Wright County Planning Commission granted a CUP to Fischer to operate a diesel repair business as a home-extended business on property that is zoned General Agricultural (AG). Under this zoning classification home-extended businesses are allowed. The Hortians live on the neighboring property and complained about the business multiple times over multiple years. The Wright County Sheriff’s Department inspected the property and noted multiple violations. Fischer was told to file for an amended CUP, which he did. Fischer estimated that 40% of his business was agricultural and that his activities on the property still complied with the zoning classification. Realtors testified that Fischer’s business injured his neighbor’s properties. The Commission granted the amended CUP.

The Hortians appealed the Commission’s decision. On appeal, the Hortians must show that the Commission did not follow the standards for CUPs set forth in the zoning ordinance and that granting the CUP was an abuse of discretion.

The Hortians challenged the county’s interpretation of WCZO §741(3) which mandates that there should be “no outside storage of supplies, equipment or maintenance items; all work and work related items shall be kept in an enclosed structure.” They claim that customers’ cars parked outside of Fischer’s building waiting for repair qualify as “equipment” or “work-related items”.  The Commission instead determined that the cars were neither “equipment” nor “work-related items,” but were rather regulated by another part of the ordinance that only prohibits parking unlicensed or inoperative vehicles.  The Commission attached a specific condition to the amended CUP that “all vehicles and trailers on the property must have current registration and/or licensure unless otherwise exempt by law.” The court sided with the Commission. Considering these vehicles as “equipment” or “work-related items” is a narrow definition that would limit Fischer’s ability to work from home.

The Hortians claimed that the Commission made an error in granting the amended CUP because Fischer’s business is injurious to neighboring properties because of the additional wear on the roads, the high volume of sounds from the tools, and the bright lighting installed around the building. During a site visit the Commission found that none of these were true and that the operation complied with the ordinance.  The court did not dispute that finding, either.

The Hortians argued that Fischer’s business did not fit in an agriculturally zoned area. The Commission found that, while the business is industrial in nature, it serves an agricultural community and an agricultural purpose and therefore fit in the zoning classification.

The Commission did not err by granting the CUP.

Neighbor testimony sufficient evidence to support CUP denial

by Andrea Vaage

August v Chisago County Board of Commissioners
Minnesota Court of Appeals, August 17, 2015

Jeffrey August purchased a 20-acre tract of land in Sunrise Township, in Chisago County, Minnesota. August built a fenced-in arena and later an announcement system for mounted shooting events he hosted on the property. In 2013, August formed a club, Cowboy Mounted Shooting, which held competitions and clinics. Mounted shooting involves contestants on horseback who shoot .45 caliber blanks at balloons on posts in the middle of the arena. These competitions were held throughout the summer, typically starting in the afternoon and continuing until dusk. In 2014, the Chisago County zoning department inspected the property after hearing complaints. The department found the use of the property did not conform to its zoned agricultural use. The zoning department then recommended August apply for a conditional use permit (CUP). August complied and filed a request to allow a rural retail tourism/commercial outdoor recreation use.

Two entities provided recommendations on the CUP: Sunrise Township and Chisago County Planning Commission. Sunrise Township recommended denial of the CUP based on the excessive and disruptive noise. The County Planning Commission also recommended denial of the CUP based on comments at a public hearing that noise levels were high and consistent and a planning report which stated that, although the noise was below the allowed decibel limit, it was still clearly audible from neighboring properties.

The public hearing for the CUP was held on July 16, 2014. The County Board of Commissioners denied the permit based on that hearing and the recommendations provided by the Planning Commission. August appealed. At issue is whether the denial of the CUP was unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious. The test to determine if a zoning board decision was sound is two-pronged: the reasons given for denial are legally sufficient and the reasons had a factual basis in the record.

The legal basis for denying the CUP was Section 4.15(D)(5) of the Chisago County Zoning Ordinance (CCO) regulating rural retail tourism. Pursuant to this section, a proposed rural retail tourism use will only be allowed if it “will not negatively impact the neighborhood by intrusion of noise, glare, odor, or other adverse effects.”

The Board established several facts in regards to the noise issue. The Board relied in part on neighbors’ testimony that there was a significant increase in noise and traffic on weekends when the mounted shooting events were held. The arena for these events was located within 500 feet of adjacent homes, and noise was heard by neighboring residents. Additionally, the planning commission members’ trip to the property confirmed the high levels of noise resulting from the gunfire.

August argued the Board cannot rely on neighbor’s testimony, however, the court relied on previous rulings that found that “a municipal entity may consider neighborhood opposition when it is based on something more concrete than non-specific neighborhood opposition.

August also argued that the CUP could only be denied if the noise levels exceeded decibel levels set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MCPA). The Court found that the county zoning ordinances were not in conflict with the MCPA standards because it regulates noise based on neighborhood intrusion, not decibel levels.

The County Board of Commissioners decided to deny the CUP based on sufficient legal and factual basis and was not unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious. The Board’s decision is affirmed.

Zoning Board of Adjustment properly carried out its role in approving application for CAFO

by Andrea Vaage

Grant County Concerned Citizens & Tyler v Grant County
South Dakota Supreme Court, June 24, 2015

Teton LLC applied for a conditional use permit to construct a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) to house 6,616 swine larger than 55 pounds (“finisher” swine according to the Zoning Ordinances of Grant County (ZOGC)) and 1,200 swine smaller than 55 pounds (“nursery” swine in the ZOGC). The proposed operation would classify as a Class A CAFO-the largest possible designation under the ZOGC.  The Grant County Board of Adjustment (BOA) approved the permit after a hearing attended by 200 individuals. Grant County Concerned Citizens (GCCC) appealed.  Several procedural events are not included here, but the case eventually made its way to the South Dakota Supreme Court.  The Court’s conclusions on GCCC’s claims follow.

After the circuit court made a decision affirming the Board’s decision, GCCC submitted an affidavit signed by Tyler explaining the purpose of the excavation was to obtain water for his horse herd. The Board and Teton moved to strike the affidavit from record, upon which the circuit court granted the motion.

Private well. Under the ZOGC, a CAFO cannot be constructed within 2,640 feet of a private well. The ZOCG does not provide a definition of a “well,” however, SDCL 46-1-6(18) defines “well” as “an artificial excavation or opening in the ground, made by means of digging, boring, drilling, jetting, or by any other artificial method, for the purpose of obtaining groundwater.” GCCC claimed that the BOA’s decision improperly allows a CAFO within 2,640 feet of a well on neighbor Tyler’s property; however, the evidence showed that the well was actually dug on or just before the day of Teton’s application and that the excavation produced 12 gallons of water that day. The Board determined the Tyler’s constructed the well in order to frustrate the Teton’s application and as such the excavation did not meet the definition of “well.”  The Court affirmed, concluding that the BOA’s finding that the purpose of the excavation was to frustrate the CAFO application was material to the statute’s definition of “well” when the definition requires a well to be dug “for the purpose of obtaining groundwater.”  It was irrelevant that the excavation actually obtained 12 gallons of water.

Manure management and operation plan. Section 1034(4) of the ZOCG stipulates that the proposed CAFO must provide a manure management plan. GCCC contests that Teton’s did not find adequate acreage on which to spread manure, because Teton “significantly overstated” the amount of land on which it could apply manure.  The Court concluded that the Board made proper factual determinations on this issue, noting that ZOCG offers little in the way of specific requirements for a manure management and operation plan.

Failure to give notice to Melrose Township. The access road to the CAFO was jointly maintained by two townships. One of the two townships, Melrose Township, was not notified of the proposed CAFO by Teton.  Section 1304(12)(K) of the ZOCG requires “Notification of whomever maintains the access road (township, county and state).” An individual at the hearing for the permit testified that both townships had known about the proposed CAFO and decided not to upgrade the access road. It is irrelevant that the township was not notified by Teton, because the township had actual notice of the proceedings as evidenced by this individual’s testimony.

Nutrient management plan.  GCCC asserts that the proposed CAFO would not be able to obtain the water required to operate as evidenced by Teton’s nutrient management plan.  The Court considered this argument waived because the ZOGC’s requirements related to nutrient management plans do not address the water requirements of a CAFO.

GCCC made a number of other similar claims, but the Court found nothing in the record to suggest in these or any of the discussed claims that the Board did not regularly pursue its authority. The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the trial court.

Council’s rescission of conditional use permit based on misrepresentation was not based on substantial evidence

by Gary Taylor

Oneida Seven Generations Corp. & Green Bay Renewable Energy v. City of Green Bay
Wisconsin Supreme Court, May 29, 2015

Oneida Seven Generations Corporation sought a conditional use permit (CUP) to install a renewable energy facility in the City of Green Bay.  The facility would take municipal solid waste and turn it into energy via a pyrolytic gasification system. The application was supported by a 149-page report on the facility. The report included proposed blueprints for the facility and artist’s renderings of its exterior. It also contained photographs of a pyrolytic gasification unit with various parts labeled, including its “exhaust stack.” In addition to these illustrations, the report described the various permits that would be required from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the requisite reporting to and oversight by the DNR of the facility’s emissions. The report also contained a 50-page section entitled “Emissions,” which consisted of two papers analyzing the impact on air quality of similar facilities. The papers identify possible emissions from conversion technologies, explain that they are significantly lower in amount than emissions from other types of facilities, and observe that the emissions from facilities using conversion technologies fall within local, state, federal, and international emission limits. The papers were followed by an appendix listing over 100 facilities throughout the world that are disposing and converting biomass (principally municipal solid waste) in the process of producing energy and/or fuels.

During the question and answer session at the February 2011 Planning Commission meeting, commissioners asked numerous questions about the gasification process, the technology and its use in other communities, emissions, building appearance (including exhaust stacks), and several other topics. At the conclusion, the Plan Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the conditional use permit. Their recommendation suggested that a number of conditions be placed on the permit. These included the requirement that the facility comply with all municipal regulations and the requirement that the facility comply with federal and state regulations governing air and water quality.

The Green Bay Common Council took up Oneida Seven’s request on March 1, 2011.   Council members asked many more questions regarding emissions and waste material. At the conclusion, the Council voted 10-1 to approve the conditional use permit with the conditions recommended by the Plan Commission.

Although the City initially voted to grant the permit, it subsequently voted to rescind the CUP on the basis that it was obtained through misrepresentation. This came after Oneida Seven applied for the various city, state, and federal permits it would need for the project and submitted plans to accompany those applications.  Members of the public complained to the Green Bay City Council about many matters related to the proceeding, including that the stacks and emissions referenced in the building permit were not on the plan submitted for the CUP.  The  Council voted to direct the Plan Commission to hold a hearing to determine whether the conditional use permit had been obtained by misrepresentation. After taking more testimony and receiving more documents from Oneida Seven, the Commissioners unanimously agreed that they had had adequate information to reach a decision on the CUP, that they had not been misled, and that Oneida Seven had not made misrepresentations. The Commission relayed these findings to the Council in a report. The Council considered the Commission’s findings at a meeting on October 16, 2012. A motion to approve the decision of the Commission did not pass, but a motion to rescind the conditional use permit passed by a vote of seven to five.  Oneida appealed, lost at trial court, but won at the Court of Appeals.  The City appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court was asked to consider whether the City’s decision to rescind Oneida Seven’s conditional use permit was supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is evidence “of such convincing power that reasonable persons could reach the same decision as the board.” In determining whether the substantial evidence test is met, a court should “take into account all the evidence in the record.”  After carefully dissecting the entire record of statements made by Oneida Seven representatives at the Commission and Council meetings, and examining them in the context of the questions being asked of them at the time, the Supreme Court could not find evidence in the record on which a reasonable person could rely to find that Oneida’s statements about emissions and hazardous materials were misrepresentations. Therefore the Supreme Court concluded that the City’s decision to rescind the conditional use permit was not based on substantial evidence.

Dissenting opinion

Justice Roggensack dissented, arguing that the majority opinion did not accord the Council’s decision the presumption of correctness and validity that the law requires, and that instead, the majority opinion substituted its view of the evidence for that of the Council, contrary to law.  Material misrepresentations were made to the Council in regard to emissions during operation of the gasification facility and such a facility was not experimental because solid municipal waste was being used as the feedstock in other gasification facilities. A reasonable view of the presentations made March 1, 2011, when Oneida Seven obtained the CUP, supported the Council’s finding that it was misled.

Denial of conditional use permit not unreasonable. Concurring opinion suggests consideration of the comprehensive plan in CUP cases misplaced

by Gary Taylor and Hannah Dankbar

RDNT, LLC v City of Bloomington
Minnesota Supreme Court, March 18, 2015

RDNT owns Martin Luther Care Campus in Bloomington. The campus consists of two buildings that offer a variety of services, including assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, adult day care and transitional care. In September 2011 RDNT applied for a conditional use permit from the City of Bloomington to add a third building to the campus. The additional building would result in a 26 percent increase in the number of rooms on the campus, an 8 percent increase in employees, and an overall increase in building square footage on the campus of 62 percent. People in the community opposed the permit because they worried about an increase in traffic.

The Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend denial of the permit.  It concluded that the proposed addition would violate the comprehensive plan in three ways: (1) it is not adjacent to an arterial or collector street; (2) it is not in close proximity to transit, amenities, and services; and (3) it would not preserve the character of the surrounding low density, single family neighborhood. The Planning Commission also determined that the proposed use violated the City’s conditional use permit ordinance because it would be injurious to the surrounding neighborhood through increased traffic, density and design of the building. This conclusion was based on estimated increases in traffic and on the size, density and design of the proposed building.

The City Council met to consider the recommendations of the Planning Commission.  The Council listened to the neighboring landowners that spoke both for and against the proposal, and also reviewed traffic studies from two different experts estimating the future traffic volume that would be generated by the proposed expansion.  Ultimately the Council voted four to three to deny the application for the permit, finding that the project would conflict with different comprehensive plan provisions, and also that the project would render the Campus “incompatible with the scale and character of the surrounding low density, single family neighborhood” in violation of the conditional use permit ordinance.

RDNT filed a complaint in district court.  The district court ruled for RDNT, finding that the Council “misapplied certain standards, misrepresented the impact of certain studies, and appeared to ignore evidence to the contrary.”  On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals sided with the City, holding that the City properly exercised its discretion.  RDNT then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court did not address the issues related to compatibility of the proposal with the comprehensive plan, instead limiting its review to the claim that the proposed use would violate the conditional use ordinance.  Noting that a court “will reverse a governing body’s decision regarding a conditional use permit application if the governing body acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or capriciously” the Supreme Court broke this inquiry down into two parts:  (1) whether the reasons provided by the city were legally sufficient and, if so, (2) whether the reasons had a factual basis in the record.

Criteria 5 of the conditional use permit ordinance requires the Council to make a finding that “the proposed use will not be injurious to the surrounding neighborhood or otherwise harm the public health, safety and welfare.”  Although noting that this standard is imprecise, the Court recognized that it has long held that cities have the right to deny conditional uses “if the proposed use endangers the public health or safety or the general welfare of the area affected or the community as a whole.”  Thus the Court concluded that the ordinance standard is legally sufficient.

Regarding the second step, neighbors gave concrete testimony about how the increase in traffic would damage their quality of life. Bloomington relied on multiple traffic studies, data from their City Engineer and detailed factual complaints from residents to determine that this project will injure public health and welfare. The City determined that street capacity alone was not dispositive as to whether an increase in traffic would injure the neighborhood or otherwise harm the public health, safety, and welfare. “The fact that a street could physically handle more traffic does not determine whether the neighborhood or the public could handle more traffic. To paraphrase one of the City’s planners: this is not a capacity issue, it is a livability issue.” The Court, therefore, could not conclude that the City acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or capriciously.

Based on the record, Bloomington did not act unreasonably, arbitrarily or capriciously when it denied the permit.

Concurring Opinion

Justice Anderson agreed with the majority’s conclusion, but addressed the “alarming argument” advanced by the City “that the City may properly deny a conditional use permit when the proposed use is in conflict with its comprehensive plan.”   Justice Anderson believes there is “significant uncertainty in our statutory framework and confusion in our case law concerning the role of comprehensive plans,” and that “constitutional implications [lurk] behind the insistence of the City that a conditional use permit may be denied for any comprehensive plan violation.”  After a lengthy historical review of caselaw and legislative amendments to Minnesota’s planning and zoning statutes, Justice Anderson observes that both the courts and legislature have “made hash out of the intersection of comprehensive planning, zoning and property rights law.”  He suggests that “comprehensive plans are too long and too general (too “comprehensive”) to provide a reasonable standard” for denying a conditional use permit. Additionally, a conditional use ordinance does not create a “standard” by requiring compliance with the entire comprehensive plan as a prerequisite to obtaining a permit “because a comprehensive plan does not provide sufficiently specific standards to measure compliance.”  Finally, Justice Anderson finds it “difficult to envision … how any applicant could comply with the entire comprehensive plan.”  He points to several goals in the City’s plan that lend support to RDNT’s project, but believes that “the City, looking for any port in the storm to deny the RDNT application, now weighs these goals as less important than other goals.” In his opinion this “demonstrates the poor standard the comprehensive plan provides and the inherent arbitrariness that exists when the plan is relied upon to make these types of decisions.”

Idaho Supreme Court finds real, substantial harm may come to neighbor of proposed multi-story apartment complex if development is approved

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Lusk, LCC v City of Boise
Idaho Supreme Court, February 10, 2015

In fall 2011, Royal Boulevard Associates, LP applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) to build a 352,000 square foot, five-story, multi-family apartment complex called River Edge Apartments. The site is located near Boise State University and is zoned Residential Office with a Design Review Overlay (R-OD). Multi-family housing is allowed at this site, but Boise City Code requires a CUP to build a building that is more than 35 feet tall in an R-OD zone. River Edge was planned to be between 59 and 63 feet tall. Lusk, LLC owns a building next to the proposed site and was therefore entitled to notice of the application for a CUP.

In spring 2012, the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission (Commission) conducted a hearing and unanimously approved the CUP for River Edge. The Commission provided a written explanation for their decision for the height variance and the CUP. Lusk appealed this decision to City Council claiming that the Commission did not adequately address the criteria for a CUP found in the zoning code. Lusk claimed that the proposed building was incompatible with the buildings in the area and that constructing 622 bedrooms and 280 parking spaces would place an “undue burden on transportation and other public facilities in the vicinity” and “the proposed project will adversely affect other property in the vicinity.” The City Council denied this appeal. The District Court affirmed the City Council’s decision and Lusk appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Lusk did not appeal the height variance, just the City Council’s decision affirming the CUP. Lusk argued that because the Commission did not follow the correct procedure for granting the CUP the City Council was wrong to affirm the Commission’s decision.  Lusk argued that the district court erred in affirming the City Council’s decision because: (1) the Commission’s approval did not follow the legal procedure, (2) the decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, and (3) the decision was arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.

Boise City Code requires the Commission to consider the criteria set forth in Boise City Code section 11-06-04.13 before approving a height exception.  It states, in part, that the Commission must find that “the site is large enough to accommodate the proposed use and all yards, open spaces, pathways, walls and fences, parking, loading, landscaping and other features as are required by this title.” Idaho Code §67-6512(d)(7) provides that “conditions may be attached” to a CUP “requiring more restrictive standards than those generally required in an ordinance.” The Boise City Code also requires that the Commission determine “that the proposed use…will not adversely affect other property of the vicinity.”

Lusk argued that the Boise Code requires the Commission to determine whether planned parking is adequate for the proposed project before granting a conditional use permit.  The question is whether the Commission recognized that it possessed the discretionary authority to impose parking requirements beyond the minimum established by the Parking Chapter of the code. The record unambiguously demonstrated that the Commission failed to perceive that it had discretion to require additional parking as a condition of approval of the CUP. A staff member of Boise City Planning and Development Services said that the issue of parking is not before the Commission, rather the question of variance for a height exception and the Boise River System Permit were the only questions that can be addressed.

The Commission failed to recognize that Idaho statutes and the Boise City Code provided it with discretion to require the project to provide on-site parking beyond the minimum required by the Parking Chapter. As a result of this failure to apply governing legal standards, the Commission refused to consider the adverse effects on property in the vicinity. The Court found that the decision reflected an abuse of discretion.

The Court, deciding that the Commission abused its discretion, then had to consider whether Lusk identified prejudice to their substantial rights.  Under Idaho caselaw, a party opposing a landowner’s request for a development permit has no substantial right in seeing someone else’s application adjudicated correctly. He or she must be in jeopardy of suffering substantial harm if the project goes forward, such as a reduction in the opponent’s land value or interference with his or her use or ownership of the land.  Without even attempting to evaluate the impact of guests who arrive by automobile, if only half of the River Edge tenants have an automobile, there will be significant numbers of residents looking for parking in the vicinity.  The potential devaluation of petitioner’s property, time and expense to police parking on petitioner’s property, and inconvenience to employees and visitors to the property suggest the real potential for substantial harm.  The Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence that Lusk is in jeopardy of economic harm from the project to satisfy the requirements set forth in Idaho caselaw.

The Idaho Supreme Court reversed the district court’s decision to affirm the city’s CUP approval.

Correctional community-residential facility not appropriate in area designated for future industry

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Volunteers of America- Minnesota v City of Saint Paul
Minnesota Court of Appeals, January 20, 2015

Volunteers of America- Minnesota (VOA) claimed the City of St. Paul was wrong to deny their application for a conditional-use permit, saying that the denial was arbitrary and capricious. VOA is a non-profit faith group, which operates a center in Roseville for adults transitioning out of the federal corrections system. The center is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Corrections and has a contract with the federal government. The center had to move because their lease expired in the previous center. The organization selected 1394 Jackson Street in St. Paul and signed a purchase agreement in 2011. The property is zoned I-1 “light industrial.” Even though the property had served as a correctional community-residential facility in the past, VOA had to get a conditional-use permit from the city. VOA had to satisfy the zoning code’s five general conditions and six specific conditions, found in Section 61.501 related to correctional-residential facilities.  The five general conditions are:

  1. The extent, location and intensity of the use will be in substantial compliance with the Saint Paul Comprehensive Plan and any applicable subarea plans which were approved by the city council.
  2. The use will provide adequate ingress and egress to minimize traffic congestion in the public streets.
  3. The use will not be detrimental to the existing character of the development in the immediate neighborhood or endanger the public health, safety and general welfare.
  4. The use will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of the surrounding property for uses permitted in the district.
  5. The use shall, in all other respects, conform to the applicable regulations of the district in which it is located.

Section 65.154(d) of the zoning code limits to 16 the number of residents allowed at a community residential facility such as VOA. VOA requested that it be allowed to have 74 residents – the number of residents needed to generate sufficient operating revenue. The planning commission approved a conditional use permit and granted a upward modification of Section 65.154(d) to allow 32 residents.  VOA appealed to the city council, but the permit was denied outright by the council – not because of the occupancy limits – but rather because the application did not satisfy subsections (1) and (4) of Section 61.501.

The city determined that the planning commission erred in finding that the center substantially complies with comprehensive and district plans. The district plan states that the area should be redeveloped as “a business center with light industrial and office-service uses.” VOA asserts that the center should be considered an “opportunity site” that either focuses on mixed use development or the creation of employment centers. Neither the city council nor the Court of Appeals agreed with VOA’s assertion.  The city had plans to redevelop that area for industry for over 30 years, and with several major road construction projects nearing completion, the court said it was reasonable for the city to conclude that VOA’s proposed project does not align with the plan.

The court also found that the city’s conclusion that Jackson Street center would impede normal and orderly development was not arbitrary and capricious. Allowing the center would impede a new industrial/office park that is likely to come to the area and be at odds with the type of industrial development that is a priority to the area.  VOA’s argument that its current facilities in other locations “show a successful track record and positive feedback from neighbors” may alleviate concerns about the proposed center, but it does not establish that the center would not impede future plans for industrial and commercial development.

The city’s denial of VOA’s conditional use permit application was affirmed.

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