by Gary Taylor
Miller v. Grundy County Board of Supervisors and MidAmerican Energy
Iowa Court of Appeals, April 22, 2015
In August 2013 MidAmerican Energy requested to rezone approximately 1,200 acres in Grundy County, Iowa from A-1 Agricultural to A-2 Agricultural. MidAmerican had “Wind Farm Option Agreements” on the acres to be rezoned, and A-2 zoning would allow MidAmerican to place larger wind turbines on the land than those that would be permitted by A-1. The Grundy County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 6-1 to recommend denial of the request at its September 2013 meeting; however, the Grundy County Board of Supervisors went against this recommendation and voted 4-0 to approve the rezoning at its meeting later the same month (one supervisor recused himself due to a conflict of interest). Susan Miller, a nearby landowner, appealed the decision to district court, where the appeal was dismissed. Miller then appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.
Miller’s first issue on appeal was that the Board of Supervisors acted illegally because it failed to comply with the requirements of Iowa Code 352.6, which requires supervisors to make specific findings before permitting non-agricultural uses in an “agricultural area.” Chapter 352 authorizes the creation of agricultural preservation districts. It does not address county zoning as enabled through Chapter 335 of the Iowa Code. The Court of Appeals summarily stated that Chapter 352 is inapplicable in this case because “there is no evidence in the record that the Grundy County Board of Supervisors has ever designated any of the land involved in the zoning amendment as an ‘agricultural area'” as it is meant in Chapter 352. “Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence in the record that any owner of any of that land has ever consented to the owner’s land being included in an area designated as an ‘agricultural area.'” Simply zoning land as A-1 Agricultural does not of itself create or expand an “agricultural area” as defined in Chapter 352.
Miller’s second issue was that two of the supervisors who voted for the rezoning had conflicts of interest that required their recusal. Citing Bluffs Development Co. v. Pottawattamie County Board of Adjustment the court noted that proof of a conflict of interest must be “direct, definite, capable of demonstration, not remote, uncertain, contingent, unsubstantial, or merely speculative or theoretical.” One of the supervisors called out by Miller owns the AmericInn motel, which offers discounted rates to wind energy officials who stay there. The court found that Miller was unable to offer evidence that any discounts received by wind energy officials were different than discounts available to anyone else staying there. Without that evidence, or other evidence that the supervisor’s vote was significantly influenced by a pecuniary interest Miller’s claim failed as to the first supervisor.
The second supervisor has multiple relatives that own lands subject to “Wind Farm Option Agreements” with MidAmerican Energy; however, none of those lands were the subject of the 2013 rezoning request, and so the court concluded that any advantages to the supervisor or his relatives were “uncertain, speculative, and remote.”
The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Miller’s claims.