by Gary Taylor
Marianne Craft Norton Trust v. City Council of Hudson, et.al.
(Iowa Court of Appeals, October 7, 2009)
Rezoning of parcel within city limits from suburban agricultural to rural residential consistent with comprehensive plan; did not constitute spot zoning.
Defendants, the Manatts and the Petersons, own 40 acres west of Highway 58, on the north side of the City of Hudson within the city limits. The Marianne Craft Norton Trust owns adjacent property immediately south of the defendants’ property. Although the land along both sides of Highway 58 leading out of town to the north is primarily agricultural, there are more than 20 rural residences in the area between the densely-settled part of the city and Highway 20, four miles to the north.
The city adopted an updated comprehensive plan in October 2006 that designated 160 acres along the west side of Highway 58, including the defendants’ land and the land owned by the Trust, for future residential development. In November 2006 defendants filed with the city council a request to rezone the 40 acres in question from A-1, Suburban Agriculture to R-5, Large-Lot Residential. The plat submitted with the request showed 5 lots for development, ranging from 3 1/3 acres to over 4 1/2 acres, and two large undeveloped parcels. The city planning and zoning commission voted in January 2007 to recommend approval of the rezoning. After the required public hearings, the city council approved the rezoning request in April 2007. In May 2007 the Trust filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the district court, alleging the rezoning was “illegal, arbitrary and capricious, unreasonable, not based on substantial evidence, and an abuse of discretion.” After taking testimony, reviewing exhibits and, with permission from the parties, visiting the area the court ruled in favor of the city and the defendants. The court found the character of the area in question, while once primarily agricultural, has changed significantly and “visually appears to be more rural residential than agricultural.” It found the city council gave proper reasons for approving the rezoning, and gave consideration to the appropriate factors. It further concluded that “even if the rezoning does fit within the definition of spot zoning, it is not illegal,” in that there was a reasonable basis for making the distinction between the rezoned property and the surrounding property, and the rezoning was consistent with the comprehensive plan. The Trust appealed the district court’s ruling.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court on all counts. The Trust contended that the city council did not follow the elements found in Iowa Code 414.3 when considering whether to rezone the property and that the council, in performing a quasi-judicial function, should have made written findings with regard to each element. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that “a primary consideration of [Iowa Code 414.3] is that the zoning be in accordance with a comprehensive plan.” The minutes of the council meetings and the testimony of two council members at trial showed that the rezoning followed many of the land use goals stated in the comprehensive plan, and was consistent with the designation of the area for future residential use. The Court of Appeals then, on its own, proceeded to relate the considerations of the rezoning to a number of the elements found in Iowa Code 414.3, and determined that although the evidence on some elements of the statute was mixed and could support a decision supporting or reversing the rezoning, the bulk of the evidence on the elements of section 414.3 supported the council’s decision. “In addition, if the reasonableness of a zoning decision is open to a fair difference of opinion, courts do not interfere with the decision.” The Court of Appeals did not address the district court’s conclusion that it “did not read Sutton v. City of Dubuque to require a council to issue written findings.”
The Court of Appeals judged the claim of illegal spot zoning against the three-part test in Perkins v. Madison County: (1) whether the new zoning is germane to an object within the police power; (2) whether there is a reasonable basis for making a distinction between the spot zoned land and the surrounding property; and (3) whether the rezoning is consistent with the comprehensive plan. It also examined the considerations discussed in Kane v. City of Cedar Rapids, those being “the size of the spot zoned, the uses of the surrounding property, the changing conditions of the area, the use to which the subject property has been put, and its suitability for various uses. It again ran through a number of facts from the record, and found particularly persuasive that the permitted uses in A-1, Suburban Agriculture and R-5, Large-Lot Residential were “quite similar and compatible,” that the character of the area was changing from agricultural to rural residential, and that the comprehensive plan contemplated future residential development in the area. The court also observed that “in contrast to some other spot zoning cases, where the rezoned property was freed from some restrictions placed on the surrounding property, the rezoning in the case before us is more restrictive than the zoning on the surrounding property.” The court concluded that the rezoning did not constitute an illegal spot zoning, nor were the council’s actions arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.