by Melanie Thwing
Eagle Nests Townhome Association v. Aitkin County Planning Commission
(Minnesota Court of Appeals, December 21, 2010)
In 1998, Aitkin County, Minnesota granted Eagle Nests Townhome a conditional use permit (CUP). This was intended for a 16-unit planned unit development (PUD) on Big Sandy Lake. This CUP would allow Townhome to build nine mooring sites for boats, which was in compliance with the zoning and shoreland ordinances that were in effect at the time.
Then, in 2001 Townhome applied to the Board of Adjustment (BOA) for a variance that would allow them to increase the number of mooring sites to 16. Even though this request was denied, sometime after 2003 Eagle Nests constructed seven more illegal but permanent mooring sites. In 2008 Townhome applied to the BOA for an after-the-fact variance for the mooring sites. This request was granted.
With this variance granted, Eagle Nests applied to the planning commission, seeking to amend the CUP to allow for 16 mooring sites. After a public hearing the application was denied because it would be injurious to the environment or use of other properties, it was not consistent with the pattern of development for the area, and finally requirements of the ordinance were not met.
Eagle Nests appealed, claiming that the planning commission improperly denied the application. The court must decide whether the decision was unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious for Eagle Nests’ claim to be legitimate. If at least one reason is rational the decision cannot be arbitrary.
The shoreland ordinance at the time required that 70% of the natural habitat be kept intact. Although Eagle Nests had made steps to implement shoreland restoration, at the time the application for the variance was submitted the properties were in violation of the ordinance. The court looks to Aitkin County, Minnesota Shoreland Ordinance § 3.43(6) which states, “a CUP shall be granted only if the commission finds among other things, ‘[t]hat other applicable requirements of this ordinance…have been met.’” The court finds that the violation of the ordinance was a rational reason to deny the amendment, despite the fact that the BOA later granted the after-the-fact variance.
Further, after concerns of overcrowding and density on the shoreline the planning commission in 2005 introduced § 7.53 (B), which reduced the first tier density multiplier from 50% to 25%. This allowed Townhome only the original 9 mooring sites. The planning commission, when denying the application, stated that granting the CUP would not have been consistent with this, and would negatively impact the shoreline. On this issue, the court found that if the CUP had been granted it would be a 166% multiplier, which would directly contradict the desired pattern of development. The planning commission’s reasoning was again rational.
Also, the chair of the Aitkin County planning commission serves on several other-lake related associations, and at the time of the application stated that the pattern of development was not to increase the density on the shoreline. The planning commission relied on his knowledge to reach agreement. The law in Minnesota allows for city councils to consider opinions of residents as long as the opinions were concrete and based on observations, which is the case here. It was reasonable for the planning commission to rely on the information provided.
Finally, the planning commission was concerned about the impact of granting the application for other plans for moorings that were similar to that proposed by Eagle Nests. Again, granting this application or any others would not be consistent with the development goals of the county. These reasons were adequate reasons for the planning commission’s denial, and the decision of the planning commission was upheld.