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Community group did not have standing to challenge rezoning denial

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Iowa Coalition Against The Shadow (ICATS) and Rockne Cole v City Council of Iowa City
Iowa Court of Appeals, January 27, 2106

Iowa City owned property zoned as “Neighborhood Public Zone” (P-1) that was no longer needed for city purposes.  The City Council requested developers to submit proposals, and accepted a proposal for a twenty-story building that would have both commercial and residential units. The proposed building would require the property to be rezoned as CB-10, which contains no height restrictions.  Cole and others filed an application to rezone the property to “Central Business Support Zone” (CB-5) to prevent a building that height from being constructed (CB-5 allows for mixed-use buildings that are less than 75 feet fall). None of the rezoning applicants owned property neighboring the parcel in question or sought to purchase the property to erect a building to comply with CB-5 zoning.  Their application urged the City Council to “protect our cherished commons, and allow future generations of children to enjoy the bright sunlight at Chauncey Swan Park without a 20 story tower looming over them.

The Planning and Zoning Commission held multiple meetings, and ultimately recommended denial of the rezoning application.  The City Council ultimately denied the request.  this left the property as P-1

Cole and ICATS filed a petition for a writ of certiorari claiming that the denial of the rezoning application was arbitrary and discriminatory because City Council had prejudged the issue and intended to grant CB-10 to accommodate the development. They argued that CB-10 zoning violated the comprehensive plan and Iowa Code section 414.3 (2013) and was illegal spot zoning. The district court determined that Cole and ICATS did not have standing because they did not suffer an injury and did not have a vested interest in the property. Cole and ICATS appealed the decision.

On appeal, Cole argued that because he applied for rezoning he had standing. ICATS claimed that they had standing to assert the rights of its members in challenging the rezoning denial.

To determine whether a person has sufficient interest to challenge a zoning decision Iowa is guided by a decision of the Florida Supreme Court: “(1) proximity of the person’s property to the property to be zoned or rezoned; (2) character of the neighborhood, including existence of common restrictive covenants and set-back requirements; (3) type of change proposed; and (4) whether the person is on entitled to receive notice under the zoning ordinance.” (Renard v. Dade County, 261 So. 2d 832, 837 (Fla. 1972)).

The court applied those factors to this case and determined that neither Cole nor ICATS had standing. There is nothing in the character of the neighborhood or the proposed zoning change that indicates Cole or ICATS had a particular interest in the change. They were interested in the change primarily so community members could enjoy the sun, but people with only a general interest shared by the public are not permitted to initiate action to promote judicial enforcement or interpretation of zoning regulations.

In addition to affirming that neither Cole nor ICATS had standing, the court also agrees that leaving that property zoned P-1 furthered the interest of ensuring residents can enjoy the sun. The specific injury that was the concern of Cole and ICATS (blocking the sun) did not occur by the denial of the rezoning application. Also, if the rezoning application was approved, there was nothing to prevent the developer from submitting an application to rezone the property to CB-10, so this zoning application did not necessarily prevent the injury Coke and ICATS sought to avoid.

The decision of the district court was upheld.

Subjective desire to maintain building insufficient to overcome determination of ‘abandoned building’

by Hannah Dankbar

City of Harlan v Walter Rogers
Iowa Court of Appeals, January 27, 2016

Rogers obtained a house built in 1885 after the death of his father-in-law in 2004.  Rogers made minor maintenance to the property at that time, such as fixing a leaky roof and cleaning up the yard, but Rogers lived in California and had problems maintaining the property. Between 2007 and 2014 Rogers received and paid a dozen special assessments. Nobody lived in the house during this time.  Also during this time, the house was broken into multiple times and multiple antiques were stolen.

In 2011 Harlan police received a nuisance complaint about the house. As a result of that call a Shelby County Environmental Health Specialist inspected the property who reported that is was, “very apparent that the owners have let this property go for many years without any maintenance or upkeep.”

In 2012 the City filed its petition under section 657A.10A and sent Rogers an order stating that the house and garage were a nuisance and were in violation of local housing codes. Because Rogers made “substantial compliance with the pre-condemnation demands” made by the City, both parties filed for a continuance multiple times. In September 2014, however, Rogers’s attorney moved to withdraw from the case stating that Rodgers had not followed the advice of the attorney. After that, Rodgers represented himself in trial in January 2015. The Shelby County Environmental Health Specialist did a final assessment of the house and found that the house still did not comply with the City housing code.  The trial court concluded that the property posed a danger to neighboring properties and residents because of its’ condition.  The court declared the property abandoned and awarded the title of the house to the City. Rogers appealed this decision.

Rogers argued that the district court should not have determined that the property was abandoned. Iowa Code section 6577A.1(1) defines an “abandoned” building as one that “has remained vacant and has been in violation of the housing code of the city in which the property is located…for a period of six consecutive months.” The code offers a list of factors a court “shall consider” to determine whether a property has been abandoned. Rogers argued his desire to “maintain his ownership in the property in Harlan” is sufficient to overcome the conclusion that the property was abandoned, but the court did not agree. Even though Rogers was up to date on his property taxes and special assessments, the house did not have utilities for more than twelve years and was vacant during this entire time. According to inspectors the house did not meet code for human habitation; it was not a house that would be habitable simply by turning on the utilities. Rogers claimed he was working on getting the the house fixed and intended to move into it upon his retirement, but the court stated that Rogers subjective desire to maintain the property was not the controlling factor.  Because the property has been vacant for more than six months, the court determined that it met the statutory test for a abandoned property and ruled in favor of the City.

Links to law presentations from 2015 APA-Iowa Annual Conference

The powerpoint presentations from the 2015 APA-Iowa Annual Conference held in Sioux City on October 14-16 are now available here.

Thursday afternoon session on Signs and Cell Towers, by Peter McNally, Dustin Miller and Gary Taylor

Iowa APA 2015 Cell Towers
Iowa APA 2015 Signs

Friday morning AICP Law session by Gary Taylor

Iowa APA 2015 Law session

Notice posted in internal hallway of building “reasonably calculated to apprise the public of the information”

by Gary Taylor

City of Postville, et al v. Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission
Iowa Court of Appeals, June 10, 2015

This case came back to the Court of Appeals on remand from the Iowa Supreme Court.  In its 2013 decision the Supreme Court determined that there was a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of whether placing notices of Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (Commission) meetings on a bulletin board in the building’s interior hallway outside the meeting room complied with Iowa’s Open Meetings Act.

Iowa Code 21.4 provides in part:

…[A] governmental body shall give notice of the time, date, and place of each meeting including a reconvened meeting of the governmental body, and the tentative agenda of the meeting, in a manner reasonably calculated to apprise the public of that information. Reasonable notice shall include advising the news media who have filed a request for notice with the governmental body and posting the notice on a bulletin board or other prominent place which is easily accessible to the public and clearly designated for that purpose at the principal office of the body holding the meeting, or if no such office exists, at the building in which the meeting is to be held.

The facts relevant to the issue raised were recited by the Court of Appeals:

“The bulletin board is approximately thirty to forty feet from the main public access door.  The board is not visible from the entrance door to the office.  The office is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:00am to 4:30pm…. The testimony indicated the bulletin board was visible from the reception area, but the board’s contents were not.  The Commission’s secretary testified that you could not specifically see what was on the bulletin board from the reception area.  The meeting notices have been posted on the same bulletin board in the same hallway outside the room where the Commission has met for at least twenty years.  While the general public did not regularly frequent the hallway, or the Commission’s building itself, the public was not prohibited from entering or viewing the contents of the bulletin board.  The receptionist, who had worked at the Commission for thirty-two years, testified she never turned a member of the public away from the door. However, she could not recall any member of the public ever coming to the office to ask when and where the Commission met.”

Approximately ten years before the lawsuit was filed, the Commission installed a new bulletin board located in the reception area of the building immediately inside the front door, but the meeting notices continued to be posted on the original bulletin board down the hall outside the meeting room.  The Court of Appeals observed, however, that “there is no indication that posting the notice on the new bulletin board would have resulted in more members of the public being apprised of the meetings since the only people to frequent the building were those who had business with the Commission or had an appointment.”  The Court concluded that “the statute does not require the notice of the meeting be viewable twenty-four hours a day, or that it be in the most visible place available.  All that is required is that the Commission substantially comply with the requirement that the notice be posted ‘in a manner reasonable calculated to apprise the public of the information.'”   Substantial evidence was present to support the district court’s conclusion that the Commission had met this standard.

Agland preservation district statutes not relevant to rezoning application. No conflicts of interest found, either

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.

Lawyer must be present at meeting to invoke litigation exception to open meeting requirement

by Gary Taylor

Olinger, et al. v. Harrison County, Iowa, Utman Drainage District et. al.
Iowa Court of Appeals, March 25, 2015

The trustees for the Utman Drainage District went into closed sessions on November 7 and November 14, 2013, allegedly to discuss matters relating to pending litigation.  In court documents the trustees admitted that legal counsel for the district was not present at either meeting.  On November 25, 2013 Olinger and Meyer (plaintiffs) filed a petition alleging that both closed sessions were held in violation of the Iowa Open Meetings Act (OMA).  The parties requested the district court judge to conduct an in camera (private) inspection of the recordings of the meetings for the purposes of determining whether the records should be open to the public.  The district court did so, and filed an order on March 4, 2014 giving plaintiffs access to the November 7 recording (which merely contained a discussion of paying subpoenas from a previous lawsuit) but denying access to the November 14 recordings because the trustees were discussing strategies involving imminent litigation.  The court further ordered each trustee to pay a $100 fine for closing the November 7 meeting unlawfully (which the court later suspended on the condition that the trustees by a handbook on open meetings from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council).  Cross appeals were filed.

One issue presented, but not addressed in detail here, was whether the court could impose the $100 fine – and later suspend that fine – based solely on the court’s in camera inspection of the record.  The Court of Appeals determined it could not impose the fine without taking evidence on the question of whether the trustees knowingly violated the OMA.

The other issue was whether the trustees could invoke the “litigation” exception to the open meetings requirement without the drainage district’s attorney being present at the meeting.  Iowa Code Section 21.5 provides in part:

1.  A governmental body may hold a closed session only by affirmative public vote of either two-thirds of the members of the body or all of the members present at the meeting. A governmental body may hold a closed session only to the extent a closed session is necessary for any of the following reasons:
….
c.  To discuss strategy with counsel in matters that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent where its disclosure would be likely to prejudice or disadvantage the position of the governmental body in that litigation.

The Court of Appeals found no ambiguity in that section.  Although the trustees argued that the placement of “or” in section 21.5(1)(c) (“matters that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent”) makes the presence of counsel optional, the court considered it clear that the phrase “discuss strategy with counsel” at the beginning of the sentence was meant to modify both “presently in litigation” and “where litigation is imminent.”  The court reviewed the legislative history of that subsection and found it supported its conclusion that in order to invoke the litigation exception the governing body’s lawyer must be present at the closed session, regardless of whether the governing body was in litigation or whether litigation was imminent.

Landowner negligent in discharge of stormwater over neighbor’s property

by Hannah Dankbar

A.D., L.L.C. v 2004 SC Partners L.L.C.
(Iowa Court of Appeals, November 26, 2014)

2004 SC Partners L.L.C. is the current owner of Morning Hills Apartments.  A.D., L.L.C. bought property adjoining Morning Hills Apartments in 2009 and the two parties have had many conflicts since then. Starting in 2009 A.D. began to receive notices from the city of Sioux City and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to solve a public nuisance relating to soil erosion and silting. The hillside between Partners and A.D. is highly erodible. A.D. filed an equity action in July 2011 petitioning to have Partners help solve this problem. A.D. sought money judgments for past damages and an order for Partners to abate the issue. Partners answered by saying this issue was already addressed in court and solved privately with A.D. saying they would solve the problem and that the damage was their fault. Partners filed a counter claim that A.D. had failed to comply with the settlement agreement and that they should stabilize the slope and to compensate Partners for the damage to their land from the prior suit.

In 2012 Partners filed a motion for summary motion, which A.D. resisted. A.D. said that the water damage is a result of Partners’ water drainage system that changed the natural flow of water and that they have failed to maintain the system. The district court cited the “general rule” that the dominant estate is entitled to drain surface water in a natural water course of the servient owner’s land, and if damage results the servient landowner is without remedy, unless there is a substantial increase in drainage that results in actual damage. Citing Oak Leaf Country Club v. Wilson, the court also observed, “A corollary of the rule is an overriding requirement that one must exercise ordinary care in the use of his property so as to not injure the rights of neighboring landowners.”

The court found the essential issue in this case to be whether Partners is discharging water in an unnatural manner, has changed the method of drainage in such a way that it has become liable for damages, or, stated another way, whether it is exercising ordinary care in the use of its property so as not to injure the rights of neighboring landowners.

It concluded there were questions of fact as to whether or not “Partners has violated a duty to use ordinary care in the maintenance of [its] property, and whether or not a private nuisance has been established.” The district court therefore denied the motion for summary judgment.

Both sides testified that they attempted to address the problem. A.D. built a retaining pond to accommodate the water and Partners asserted they would add piping, but were waiting for payment from the 2009 suit. A variety of engineers testified that the structure was not functioning to its’ maximum capacity. The court concluded A.D.’s petition had sufficient facts to plead an alternative claim of negligence. The court decided that Partners had a duty to be aware of dangerous property conditions (the degraded drainage system) and failed to fix the problem given a reasonable amount of time.

The trial court decided that A.D. suffered $92,800 in damages, but that it had purchased the property knowing there was a problem with the drainage system and had no plans to remedy the situation. The court decided that A.D. was 65%, and Partners 35%, at fault for the property damage. Under Iowa’s Comparative Fault Act Partners argued that A.D. therefore could not recover damages; however, the court found it could not conclude that something other than Partners’ failure to abate the drainage system was the only cause of damage to A.D.’s property. The court also ruled that the easement a dominant estate has on a servient estate cannot provide a defense to a negligence claim.

The court enjoined Partners from continuing to allow its drainage system to function without repair and order it to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that its drainage system is properly functioning at its own cost. The court ordered Partners to allow A.D.  access to Partners’ property, if required, to tie into a properly functioning drainage system, which will allow storm water to safely traverse A.D.’s property.

Court remanded variance case to determine whether board relied on existing nonconforming use when approving variance

by Gary Taylor

Arnburg v. City of Earlham Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, April 30, 2014)

Farmer’s Cooperative (FC) owns a number of grain bins in Earlham, and temporary grain storage bins outside the city limits.  These facilities predate Earlham’s zoning ordinance, and do not conform to existing zoning regulations.  FC purchased land adjacent to its existing operation where it intends to build additional grain bins, and filed an application to have the land rezoned from residential and commercial to “M-Industrial.”  The rezoning request was approved.  Later, FC requested a building permit for the additional grain bins, but was denied by the zoning administrator because the proposed bins would not comply with height or setback requirements.  FC filed a variance request with the Earlham Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) to allow construction of bins with no setbacks, and heights that exceeded the height limitations.  The ZBA approved the variance, but Arnburg [presumably a nearby resident] filed an action in district court.  The district court remanded the case to allow the ZBA to hold an additional hearing and make written findings of fact.

At the rehearing FC presented evidence on the need for a variance, including economic data on the profitability of conforming structures and evidence of an agreement with the city showing that the city intended to ease the concerns of neighboring residents.  Local residents, on the other hand, presented evidence of existing problems with grain dust covering nearby homes and sidewalks, and discussed problems on nearby streets due to heavy truck traffic.  They also alleged that the proposed bins would create a safety hazard due to both their height and proximity to the lot lines.  The ZBA issued an oral and written opinion granting the variance, finding that the residents’ concerns had been addressed by an agreement between the city and FC, that the bins would not alter the character of the city, and that FC’s economic analysis proved the land could not be used profitably without the variance.  The case went back to district court, which affirmed the ZBA’s decision on summary judgment.

At district court Arnburg contended the ZBA acted illegally by allowing for the expansion of a nonconforming use.  The city disagreed that the existing bins are a nonconforming use, and the variance in fact expanded a nonconforming use even if the existing bins were judged to be such.  The Court of Appeals found that, contrary to the determination of the district court, a genuine issue of fact exists in the case that precludes summary judgment.  The Earlham Code concerning variances provides in part that: “no nonconforming use of neighboring lands, structures or buildings in the same district, and no permitted use of lands, structures or buildings in other districts shall be considered grounds for the issuance of a variance.”  In reviewing the ZBA’s findings of fact, the Court of Appeals found conflicting evidence as to whether that language was satisfied.  On the one hand, the ZBA found that the variance would not create a new business, but rather only expand an existing business.  The Court considered this to be evidence that the ZBA was not considering the height or setbacks of the building but rather the business itself.  On the other hand the ZBA also stated as justification for the variance the fact that FC “also has bins that exceed the local ordinance standards presently.”  With both these statements in the ZBA’s findings, the Court found that a genuine issue of material fact existed and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Effect on county tax base not relevant to decision to create rural improvement zone

by Gary Taylor

Homeowners Association of the Coves of Sundown Lake v. Appanoose County Board of Supervisors
(Iowa Court of Appeals, March 26, 2014)

The Homeowners Association of the Coves of Sundown Lake (Association) petitioned the Appanoose County Board of Supervisors (Board) to establish a rural improvement zone (RIZ) surrounding the lake for the purpose of diverting future property tax revenue growth towards making improvements in the Sundown Lake area.  The petition contained 172 signatures, representing at least 25% of the residents and 25% of the total assessed value of the proposed zone.  The Association requested a public hearing before the Board, and a hearing was held November 2, 2012.  Information was presented during the hearing concerning the need for improvements to the lake; most notably to alleviate the effects of silting.  The Board also discussed the requirements for establishment of a RIZ and the loss of revenue to the county if a RIZ was created.  The statutory requirements necessitating that the Board hold a hearing were not discussed; however, the Board denied the request on November 13 because the Association had failed to meet the statutory requirements for Board consideration, and also because of the loss of tax revenue to the county if a RIZ were created.  On appeal, the district court found the Board was precluded from examining whether the petition had satisfied the statutory requirements because the Board had in fact scheduled and held the hearing. The district court also concluded that the Board acted illegally in considering the impact of a RIZ on county tax receipts. The Board appealed to the Court of Appeals.

After confirming that the Association had standing to bring the initial suit before the district court, the Court of Appeals confirmed both conclusions of the district court.  First, the Court of Appeals examined the statutory scheme of Iowa Code 357H.1 through 357H.4 (procedures for creating RIZ) and concluded that once the Board called a hearing, the only matters it was empowered to consider were the merits of the petition, not whether the petition itself met the statutory requirements.

This interpretation avoids the element of unpredictability found in this case. The Board’s interpretation of the chapter would allow a board to set a hearing for the purpose of determining whether an improvement is needed, hold the hearing on the merits, and then confound the petitioners by deciding – after the hearing on the merits an without discussion – that the hearing itself should not have occurred.  We find nothing in the chapter to evidence a legislative intent to create such inefficiencies.

Second, the Court of Appeals affirmed that the Board was not to consider the effect of the RIZ on the county’s tax base.  “The chapter directs a board to establish a zone if the area is in need of improvements. The consideration is specifically and unambiguously limited to the needs of the area under consideration and does not include issues pertaining to the county as a whole….The Board acted improperly by considering the impact the zone would have on county finances.”  The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court order for the Board to consider the Association’s petition using a proper interpretation of chapter 357H.

Action of Amana Colonies Land Use Board of Trustees in approving hotel and convention complex was quasi-judicial

by Gary Taylor

Catherin Oehl, et al, v. Amana Colonies Land Use District Board of Trustees
(Iowa Court of Appeals, March 26, 2014)

(Note: For those Iowans curious about the history of the special land use legislation affecting the Amana Colonies, Iowa Code 303.41 et seq.,  the facts of this case are repeated in detail.)

The Amana Colonies are unincorporated villages in Iowa County. In 1932, the Amana Society, a private corporation, owned the 26,000 acres in which the Amana Colonies are located. Development within the Amana Colonies was effectively managed by deed restrictions and covenants. In 1982, the Iowa Supreme Court held that land use restrictions in the deeds were invalid and unenforceable, effectively nullifying the informal land use control system governing development within the Amana Colonies. In response, the Iowa legislature authorized the creation of special land use districts for the purpose of preserving the “distinctive historical and cultural character” of the districts so created.*** Although the statutory language authorizing the creation of land use districts is phrased in general terms, the definition of eligible districts and legislative history make clear that the statute was created specifically to allow the residents of the Amana Colonies, collectively, to manage development in their historically and culturally significant community in a manner consistent with community traditions and values.

Voters in the Amana Colonies approved the creation of the Amana Colonies Land Use District (ACLUD), and elected a seven-member Board of Trustees. The Board adopted a Land Use Plan that emphasizes historic preservation. The Land Use Plan provides for the creation of Historic Preservation Districts (HPD). The Land Use Plan also establishes an Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) tasked with consideration of applications for Certificates of Approval (COA) for “[a]ny construction, alteration, demolition, or removal affecting a significant exterior architectural feature of any structure within an HPD.” The Board may issue a COA for construction of a structure in an HPD after review and recommendation by the HPC.

In May 2010, the Cutlers applied for a COA to build a hotel, convention center, and banquet complex as additions to their restaurant.  The HPC unanimously approved the proposal and sent it to the Board, where it was tabled for 12 months while multiple hearings were held.  The Appellants in this case opposed the COA and presented their views at these hearings. Then in 2011 the Cutlers presented an update application.  The HPC forwarded to the Board without a recommendation.  The Board initially voted 3-3 on that application, but after the Cutlers made changes to the proposal the Board reconsidered and voted 4-2 in favor of the application.  The COA was issued and the Appellants appealed to the ACLUD Board of Adjustment (BOA), which under Iowa Code 303.54 is empowered to “make special exceptions to the terms of the land use plan which are in harmony with its general purpose and intent and in accordance with the general or specific rules of the plan.”  The BOA determined it did not have the authority “to review and overturn the essentially legislative decision of the Board of Trustees to grant applications such as that of the Cutlers.”  Appellants then challenged the COA itself in a declaratory action filed in district court approximately 105 days after the issuance of the COA, and 70 days after the BOA decision. The district court dismissed the case as improper and untimely.

The Iowa Supreme Court stated in Sutton v. Dubuque that a certiorari action (as opposed to a declaratory action) is the exclusive remedy for challenging a quasi-judicial action, and such actions must be filed within 30 days of the decision being challenged.  The question in the present case, therefore, was whether the action of the Board of Trustees in issuing the COA was a quasi-judicial action.  The Court of Appeals determined that it was.  A tribunal is exercising quasi-judicial authority when “(1) the questioned act involves a proceeding in which notice and an opportunity to be heard are required; (2) a determination of rights of parties is made which requires the exercise of discretion in finding facts and applying the law thereto; or (3) the challenged act goes to the determination of some right the protection of which is the peculiar office of the courts.”  The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the Land Use Plan declares determinations about COAs to be “legislative policy determinations,” but further recognized from prior caselaw that it “must look to the nature of the act regardless of the label applied to it.”  In reviewing the record the court agreed that contentions by the Appellants that the Cutlers’ proposal did not meet several requirements found in the Land Use Plan – including those for yard size and parking – were all complaints that the Board did not properly apply the facts to the regulations – “complaints arising out of the Board’s quasi-judicial functions and not its legislative functions.”  Because the Board’s decision was quasi-judicial in nature, the Appellants’ failure to file a certiorari action in a timely manner warranted dismissal of the case.

———————————

 *** 303.41  Eligibility and purpose.

A land use district shall not be created under this subchapter unless it is an area of contiguous territory encompassing twenty thousand acres or more of predominately rural and agricultural land owned by a single entity which has within its general boundaries at least seven platted villages which are not incorporated as municipalities at the time the district is organized. The eligible electors may create a land use district to conserve the distinctive historical and cultural character and peculiar suitability of the area for particular uses with a view to conserving the value of all existing and proposed structures and land and to preserve the quality of life of those citizens residing within the boundaries of the contiguous area by preserving its historical and cultural quality.