by Gary Taylor and Hannah Dankbar
RDNT, LLC v City of Bloomington
Minnesota Supreme Court, March 18, 2015
RDNT owns Martin Luther Care Campus in Bloomington. The campus consists of two buildings that offer a variety of services, including assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, adult day care and transitional care. In September 2011 RDNT applied for a conditional use permit from the City of Bloomington to add a third building to the campus. The additional building would result in a 26 percent increase in the number of rooms on the campus, an 8 percent increase in employees, and an overall increase in building square footage on the campus of 62 percent. People in the community opposed the permit because they worried about an increase in traffic.
The Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend denial of the permit. It concluded that the proposed addition would violate the comprehensive plan in three ways: (1) it is not adjacent to an arterial or collector street; (2) it is not in close proximity to transit, amenities, and services; and (3) it would not preserve the character of the surrounding low density, single family neighborhood. The Planning Commission also determined that the proposed use violated the City’s conditional use permit ordinance because it would be injurious to the surrounding neighborhood through increased traffic, density and design of the building. This conclusion was based on estimated increases in traffic and on the size, density and design of the proposed building.
The City Council met to consider the recommendations of the Planning Commission. The Council listened to the neighboring landowners that spoke both for and against the proposal, and also reviewed traffic studies from two different experts estimating the future traffic volume that would be generated by the proposed expansion. Ultimately the Council voted four to three to deny the application for the permit, finding that the project would conflict with different comprehensive plan provisions, and also that the project would render the Campus “incompatible with the scale and character of the surrounding low density, single family neighborhood” in violation of the conditional use permit ordinance.
RDNT filed a complaint in district court. The district court ruled for RDNT, finding that the Council “misapplied certain standards, misrepresented the impact of certain studies, and appeared to ignore evidence to the contrary.” On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals sided with the City, holding that the City properly exercised its discretion. RDNT then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court did not address the issues related to compatibility of the proposal with the comprehensive plan, instead limiting its review to the claim that the proposed use would violate the conditional use ordinance. Noting that a court “will reverse a governing body’s decision regarding a conditional use permit application if the governing body acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or capriciously” the Supreme Court broke this inquiry down into two parts: (1) whether the reasons provided by the city were legally sufficient and, if so, (2) whether the reasons had a factual basis in the record.
Criteria 5 of the conditional use permit ordinance requires the Council to make a finding that “the proposed use will not be injurious to the surrounding neighborhood or otherwise harm the public health, safety and welfare.” Although noting that this standard is imprecise, the Court recognized that it has long held that cities have the right to deny conditional uses “if the proposed use endangers the public health or safety or the general welfare of the area affected or the community as a whole.” Thus the Court concluded that the ordinance standard is legally sufficient.
Regarding the second step, neighbors gave concrete testimony about how the increase in traffic would damage their quality of life. Bloomington relied on multiple traffic studies, data from their City Engineer and detailed factual complaints from residents to determine that this project will injure public health and welfare. The City determined that street capacity alone was not dispositive as to whether an increase in traffic would injure the neighborhood or otherwise harm the public health, safety, and welfare. “The fact that a street could physically handle more traffic does not determine whether the neighborhood or the public could handle more traffic. To paraphrase one of the City’s planners: this is not a capacity issue, it is a livability issue.” The Court, therefore, could not conclude that the City acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or capriciously.
Based on the record, Bloomington did not act unreasonably, arbitrarily or capriciously when it denied the permit.
Justice Anderson agreed with the majority’s conclusion, but addressed the “alarming argument” advanced by the City “that the City may properly deny a conditional use permit when the proposed use is in conflict with its comprehensive plan.” Justice Anderson believes there is “significant uncertainty in our statutory framework and confusion in our case law concerning the role of comprehensive plans,” and that “constitutional implications [lurk] behind the insistence of the City that a conditional use permit may be denied for any comprehensive plan violation.” After a lengthy historical review of caselaw and legislative amendments to Minnesota’s planning and zoning statutes, Justice Anderson observes that both the courts and legislature have “made hash out of the intersection of comprehensive planning, zoning and property rights law.” He suggests that “comprehensive plans are too long and too general (too “comprehensive”) to provide a reasonable standard” for denying a conditional use permit. Additionally, a conditional use ordinance does not create a “standard” by requiring compliance with the entire comprehensive plan as a prerequisite to obtaining a permit “because a comprehensive plan does not provide sufficiently specific standards to measure compliance.” Finally, Justice Anderson finds it “difficult to envision … how any applicant could comply with the entire comprehensive plan.” He points to several goals in the City’s plan that lend support to RDNT’s project, but believes that “the City, looking for any port in the storm to deny the RDNT application, now weighs these goals as less important than other goals.” In his opinion this “demonstrates the poor standard the comprehensive plan provides and the inherent arbitrariness that exists when the plan is relied upon to make these types of decisions.”