Minnesota Supreme Court adopts restrictive interpretation of “unnecessary hardship”

GT NOTE:  This is an interesting case for Iowa planners and board of adjustment members because the Minnesota Supreme Court is interpreting variance language in the Minnesota statutes that is identical to that found in the Iowa Code.  They reach the same conclusions as previous Iowa court cases.

by Melanie Thwing

Krummenacher v. City of Minnetonka
(Supreme Court of Minnesota, June 24, 2010)

JoAnne Liebeler owns property in Minnetonka, MN. There is a detached garage on the property, which sits 17 ft from the property line. Minnetonka City Code §300.10 states that a detached garage must be set at least 50 feet from the property line, but the structure was built before this ordinance and thus grandfathered in. In March 2008, a variance was filed by Liebeler, which is required by Minnesota Stat. to add a living space above the nonconforming garage.

A public hearing occurred in March where her neighbor, Krummenacher, spoke against the variance. He argued that this addition obstructed his view. The request was ultimately approved with the planning commission stating: 1.) an undue hardship would occur without it, 2.) a unique circumstance of nonconformity,  3.) compliance with the intent of the ordinance, and 4.) the variance would not alter the neighborhood character.

Krummenacher challenged the Commissions decision with the City Council, who ultimately sided with the Commission. Krummenacher then filed an appeal in district court, which affirmed, and the Court of Appeals, which also affirmed. Finally he appealed to the Supreme Court of Minnesota.

He argued that 1.) Minnesota Stat. § 462.357 does not allow the City to grant a variance that would expand a nonconforming use, 2.) the approval was arbitrary and 3.) the district court erred because they did not require the City to produce additional documents.

Krummenacher first argues that Minnesota Stat. § 462.357 1(e) does not allow the expansion of a nonconforming use. The statute itself states in part A. that any nonconforming use in place before the statute may continue to be used but not expanded. However, part B. states that they may permit expansion to, “prevent, and abate nuisances and to protect the public health, welfare, or safety.” Section B. also grants cities discretion to issue permits.

The Supreme Court looks at Minnetonka City Code § 300.29(g)(1) which allows for expansion as long as a variance is obtained. Because the State entrusted the power within the city to issue permits, and because Liebeler did this, the City was within its authority to consider a variance for a nonconforming use.

Next, Krummenacher argues that the decision was arbitrary because the correct standard to define “undue hardship” was not applied. He argues that the standard in Minnesota Stat. § 462.357 subd. 6., requires proof of the property not being usable, that the landowner is in a difficult spot because the structure was in place before the property was bought, and the essential character of the neighborhood would not be altered.

The City urged that the “reasonable manner” standard set forth in the Minnesota Court of Appeals case of Rowell v. Board of Adjustment of Moorhead. was used, and is an appropriate interpretation of state law.  It claimed the variance was a reasonable request because of the overall topography of the land. The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, declined to follow the lead of the Court of Appeals in Rowell.  It pointed out that the plain language states that the property must show that it cannot be put to “reasonable use” without the variance.  The Supreme Court looked to a decision in Stadsvold where they defined the difference between “undue hardship” which applies to Minnesota municipalities, and “practical difficulties” which applies to area variances in Minnesota counties. This distinction does not leave any room for the “reasonable manner” standard from Rowell. Instead the precedent from Curry v. Young is the correct to use, which establishes a more rigorous standard for “undue hardship.”  Thus the “reasonable manner” standard used by the City, although it has been used for over 20 years, cannot continue to be used.  The Court explained:

We recognize that the Rowell “reasonable manner” standard represents a longstanding interpretation of the undue hardship standard in Minn. Stat. § 462.357, subd. 6, and that Minnesota municipalities have been granting variances under the “reasonable manner” standard for many years. We also recognize that our decision will result in a restriction on a municipality’s authority to grant variances as compared with the “reasonable manner” standard. But whatever value we may find in a more flexible standard, particularly with regard to area variances, we cannot ignore the plain language of the statute. See State v. Peck, 773 N.W.2d 768, 773 (Minn. 2009) (“We have no opportunity to ignore part of the legislature’s definition.”). We are unable to interpret the statutory language to mean anything other than what the text clearly says—that to obtain a municipal variance, an applicant must establish that “the property in question cannot be put to a reasonable use if used under conditions allowed by the official controls.” Minn. Stat. § 462.357, subd. 6. Therefore, unless and until the legislature takes action to provide a more flexible variance standard for municipalities, we are constrained by the language of the statute to hold that a municipality does not have the authority to grant a variance unless the applicant can show that her property cannot be put to a reasonable use without the variance.

Minnesota city’s moratorium to study pawnshops deemed valid

by Gary Taylor

Pawn America Minnesota, LLC v. City of St. Louis Park
(Minnesota Supreme Court, August 26, 2010) 

In 2007 a prospective pawnbroker was required to submit a zoning application, and an application for a pawnbroker’s license in order to operate a pawnshop in St. Louis Park, Minnesota (city).  In June of that year Pawn America submitted just such a zoning application.  The assistant city zoning administrator issued a zoning verification letter confirming that the intended use of the property complied with the City’s zoning code. Because of public concerns about the proliferation of pawnshops, the city council brought forward for consideration a moratorium on new pawnshops and a proposal to initiate a study in order to decide whether any additional conditions or restrictions on pawnshops should be adopted. Upon learning of the city council’s intent to vote on the moratorium Pawn America immediately entered into a lease agreement and submitted to the city a signed certificate of occupancy and land use registration application, and requested immediate issuance of a pawnbroker license. The city refused, and soon thereafter adopted the moratorium that temporarily prohibited new pawn-shops, and stopped any further processing of pending pawn-shop licenses. The zoning study was completed two months after the moratorium went into effect, and as a result of the study the city amended the zoning code to make pawnshops conditional uses which included a distance separation requirement between pawnshops, gun shops, liquor stores, and certain other business from being located within 350 feet of residentially zoned property.  The separation requirement precluded Pawn America from opening its pawnshop at the proposed location.                                                                  �
Pawn America asked the district court to declare the interim ordinance invalid because it was adopted for the improper purpose of delaying or preventing Pawn America from opening a pawnshop. The city moved to dismiss the claims. The district court dismissed Pawn America’s claims because the moratorium was not arbitrary or capricious.  The court affirmed previous caselaw stating that moratoria to preserve the status quo pending further study of zoning  are permissible. The court went further saying the mere adoption of an interim ordinance after learning of a particular proposed use of property does not, in itself, mean that enactment of an ordinance is arbitrarily enacted to delay or prevent the project. The Minnesota court of Appeals affirmed the district court, and Pawn America appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.�
The court examined the case in light of Minn. Stat. § 462.355(4)(a) which gives authority to a municipality, under certain conditions, to adopt a moratorium “for the purpose of protecting the planning process and the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.”  It determined that the city enacted the moratorium to give it time to study the situation and make informed decisions for the long-term welfare of the city.  While the court was cognizant of the hostility surrounding the location of a pawnshop at Pawn America’s proposed site, nothing in the statute precluded the city from adopting the moratorium when the city knew that it would affect only one particular entity, or that it was adopted in response Pawn America’s pending application. The court concluded that the city was acting to protect the planning process and the health, safety and welfare of its citizens and that the moratorium was not unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious.

Minnesota SC addresses valuation of contaminated, condemned properties

by Gary Taylor

Moorhead Economic Development Authority v. Anda
(Minnesota Supreme Court, September 2, 2010)

In March 2001 the Moorhead Economic Development Authority (MEDA) exercised its condemnation power to take Roger Anda’s commercial property as part of a redevelopment project. MEDA used the “quick-take” eminent domain procedure allowed in Minnesota law.  Under the quick-take procedure the government entity is allowed to take title and possession of the property prior to the valuation of the property by the condemnation commission (in contrast to the traditional procedure, through which the valuation is set first, then title is transferred).  After taking title to and possession of Anda’s property through the quick-take procedure, MEDA and the property’s developer, Moorhead Holiday Associates (MHA), discovered fuel-oil contaminated soil on Anda’s property and two adjoining properties. Under contractual time pressure to deliver Anda’s property and the adjoining properties to a franchise developer, MHA acted quickly to remediate the contaminated properties. The remediation process for the three properties took approximately one week to complete and cost $1,599,568.

In the condemnation commissioners subsequently awarded Anda $488,750 as compensation for the taking of his property. Both Anda and MEDA appealed the commissioners’ award. MEDA also commenced a separate action against Anda to recover damages for the cost of remediating the contamination discovered on the two adjoining properties, which MEDA alleged was a result of fuel oil leaking from Anda’s property. The parties agreed to consolidate the actions. At trial, the jury found Anda’s property was worth $455,000 “had it not been impaired by fuel oil contamination” and $0 “taking into account the fuel oil contamination.” The jury also found Anda liable for the contamination of the two adjoining parcels in the amount of $474,512. The court then concluded that Anda was not entitled to damages for the taking of his property because the cost of remediating Anda’s property exceeded the property’s fair market value. Both parties appealed.

The issue of valuation of contaminated, condemned property was one of first impression for the Minnesota Supreme Court.  The threshold question the court addressed was the date upon which the property value was to be determined.  The court held that in a quick-take eminent domain proceeding, the date of valuation is the date when title and possession of the condemned property are transferred from the owner to the condemning authority, not the date of valuation by the compensation commission.  The court then found that when the government condemns property that is contaminated at the time of the taking, the property should be valued “as remediated” rather than as contaminated or as “clean” (never contaminated).  This being the case, the actual costs of remediation are not admissible, except to the extent necessary to determine the value of the property “as remediated”-namely, if there is any loss of value to the property due to the stigma of the contamination.  It is appropriate for the condemnation commission to take into account conditions that exist at the time of the taking even if those conditions are discovered subsequent to the taking.  In the context of environmental contamination conditions, the condition can be taken into account only to determine any impact stigma may have on the value of the property.

With these issues clarified, the court determined that Anda was entitled to a new condemnation commission trial because evidence of remediation costs was admitted at his trial and used to determine the amount he was awarded as damages for the taking. A new trial is also necessary because although the jury valued his property both “as clean” and “as contaminated,” the jury did not value the property as remediated. At a new trial, the fact finder can consider the past fuel-oil contamination, but only to determine whether the stigma of that former contamination affects the fair market value of the remediated property.

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