Awarding title to city under abandonment statute not an unconstitutional taking

by Gary Taylor

Nicol and Street v. City of Monroe
Iowa Court of Appeals, May 3, 2017

Nicol and Street took title to property in Monroe, Iowa by warranty deed in 2013.  Beginning in May 2013, and over the two years that followed, the city sent them five letters regarding their failure to maintain the property.  Nicol and Street failed to take action, and so in April 2015 the city filed municipal infractions against the couple for several violations regarding junk, vehicles, and garbage on the property.  After a hearing in August 2015 the court entered judgments assessing civil penalties, and ordering them to fully abate the violations.  They did not do so.  Additionally, they failed to pay property taxes since purchasing the property, and utilities were not turned on at the property after June 2015.

In January 2016 the city petitioned for title to the property, alleging it was abandoned under Iowa Code 657A.10A.  Nicol and Street moved for dismissal, alleging that the statute is an unconstitutional taking of private property for a public purpose without just compensation.  The court denied the motion, and found at the end of a bench trial that the property met the definition of “abandoned” under the statute.  It entered an order awarding title to the city, and the couple appealed.

Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and to prove otherwise a petitioner must “negate every reasonable basis upon which the statute could be upheld as constitutional.”  In determining whether the statute is reasonable, courts consider “such things as the nature of the menace against which it will protect, the availability and effectiveness of other less drastic protective steps, and the loss which appellants will suffer from the imposition of the ordinance.”

The Court of Appeals reviewed the procedural safeguards incorporated into 657A.10A, including that the city cannot act less than 60 days from the filing of the petition and must show that the owner did not make a good-faith effort to comply with the order, and concluded that awarding title to the property is a reasonable “final resort against those property owners who have otherwise failed to comply with housing codes, building codes, nuisance laws, or tax assessments when less drastic steps toward compliance have failed.”  It further noted:

Even in the event of a complete taking, the State is not required to compensate a property owner if it can show that the owner’s bundle of rights never included the right to use the land in the way the regulation forbids….657A.10A provides a sanction for those who use their property in a manner that was already prohibited.  Because the statute does no more than duplicate the result that could have been achieved in the courts by adjacent landowners under the law of private nuisance, or by the State [in the case of public nuisances] it is not a constitutional taking for which compensation is required.

Judgment for the city of Monroe.

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