Iowa Supreme Court overturns loss of nonconforming status for Des Moines mobile home park

by Eric Christianson

Des Moines v. Ogden
Iowa Supreme Court, March 16, 2018

Frank Ogden owns and operates a nonconforming mobile home park on the south side of Des Moines. The property consists of a narrow u-shaped access road with mobile homes around the interior and exterior of this road. The historical record is not clear, but its use as a mobile home park dates back to some time between 1947 and 1955. In 1953 the Des Moines zoning ordinance was modified prohibiting mobile home parks in the R-2 zone in place on the property. In 1955, the owner of the property obtained a certificate of occupancy for the operation of a mobile home park. That certificate of occupancy indicates that the mobile home park was a nonconforming use as to the R-2 zone.

The best record documenting historical use is an aerial photograph from 1963. The photograph depicts “thirty-nine concrete pads with mobile homes situated on them in close proximity to one another. The photograph also shows that some of the homes had additional structures attached to them.” More recent photographs of the property reveal that some residents have added porches, decks, and more living space to their mobile homes.

The city did not issue any warnings or citations regarding the use of the property as a mobile home park until 2014. In 2014, a zoning administrator notified Ogden by letter of numerous violations of the 1955 Des Moines Municipal Code, under which the original certificate of occupancy had been awarded. These included setback violations, failure to maintain the access road, and additions to trailers among other issues. The letter also warned that the park’s violations posed a threat to the health and safety of the occupants.

Ogden did not take any action to remedy the violations. In October 2014, the city sought an injunction to close the park for the above listed violations. At trial the Des Moines Fire Marshall testified that the proximity of the mobile homes and the narrow access road created potentially dangerous conditions for residents.

The trial court found that the issuance of the occupancy permit in 1955 is proof that the property was in compliance with the above regulations when the nonconforming use was established. The court held further that the certificate of occupancy should be revoked as the park poses a threat to “the safety of life or property”.

Ogden appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals. The Iowa Court of Appeals found that the park had:

grown within its borders in the numbers and location of structures attached to the mobile homes resulting in a narrowing of open space on the roadways and between the homes. […] these changes over a half century have enhanced and intensified the non-conforming use to the point where it is a danger to life and property. […] Ogden’s use of the property is not a lawful intensification of an existing nonconforming use. The present congestion and crowding between structures and narrowing the roadway changes the nature and character of the 1955 non-conforming use and presents a danger to residents and neighbors of the park.

The appeals court affirmed the grant of the city’s request for an injunction against Ogden’s use of the property as a mobile home park. One judge dissented. Read more about that decision here.

Ogden appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court arguing several points:

  1. The actions of the City to enjoin his use of the mobile home park amount to an unconstitutional taking.
  2. It is not necessary for Ogden to discontinue his legal nonconforming use of the property as a mobile home park for the safety of life and property.
  3. The changes to the property did not expand his legal nonconforming use of the property beyond its authorized nonconforming use.
  4. The doctrine of equitable estoppel bars the City from seeking to enjoin his use of the property as a mobile home park.
  5. The district court erred by excluding the testimony of a resident of the mobile home park.

Unconstitutional Takings Because Ogden did not plead a defense on the basis of a taking at the district court level he waived his unconstitutional takings claim. The claim was not preserved. Iowa Supreme Court therefore did not rule on any regulatory takings claims.

Nonconforming Use The court began by citing its definition of a legal nonconforming use.

A nonconforming use is one “that lawfully existed prior to the time a zoning ordinance was enacted or changed, and continues after the enactment of the ordinance even though the use fails to comply with the restrictions of the ordinance.” City of Okoboji v. Okoboji Barz , Inc. […] (Iowa 2008) .

Discontinuance of nonconforming use for the safety of life or property For a city to obtain an injunction requiring compliance with a zoning ordinance it must establish (1) an invasion or threatened invasion of a right, (2) that substantial injury or damages will result unless the request for an injunction is granted; and (3) that there is no adequate legal remedy available.

The Iowa Supreme Court found that the City of Des Moines did not meet this burden. Apart from the testimony of the fire marshal during trial, the city offered little evidence of unsafe conditions on the property. The city had also never cited the property for violations of the fire code, and the first letter of notice of a zoning violation was not sent until 2014.

Nonconforming Use Defense In the case of an established nonconforming use, the burden lies on the city to prove that use exceeds the prior established use.  Property owners have some latitude to change their nonconforming use if those changes are not substantial and do not have adverse effects on the neighborhood. In this case, changes are compared to the state of the part when the certificate of occupancy was issued in 1955. Unfortunately there is no evidence as to the state of the park until the areal photograph from 1963. The City of Des Moines argues that the park must have been in compliance with setbacks and other regulations in 1955 otherwise the certificate would not have been granted. All of the violations visible in the 1963 areal photograph would have occurred between 1955 and 1963. The court finds this argument unpersuasive especially given the fact that the park was not cited for any zoning violations until 2014.

Taking the 1963 photograph as the best approximation of the nonconforming use recognized by the city in 1955. The number and location of the homes is similar to those located on the property today. The court notes that there are in fact less homes in the mobile home park today. The use of the property as a mobile home park today is then not “substantially or entirely different” from its original nonconforming use and is a protected legal nonconforming use.

Ogden’s Additional Claims Because the court found that Ogden’s use of the property as a mobile home park is a legal nonconforming use. The Court did not address equitable estoppel or the exclusion of the testimony of a resident.

 

The Iowa Supreme Court vacated the decision of the court of appeals and reversed the judgment of the district court. Ogden may continue his nonconforming use of the property as a mobile home park.

Dangerous Conditions Cause Mobile Home Park to Lose Legal Nonconforming Status **Decision overturned**

The decision discussed below has been overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. 

This post will be left as it was, but please read the Iowa Supreme Court’s Ruling on Des Moines v. Odgen for an update to the case.

by Eric Christianson

Des Moines v. Ogden
Iowa Court of Appeals, June 7, 2017

Frank Ogden owns and operates a nonconforming mobile home park on the south side of Des Moines. He purchased the property in 2013 from his uncle. The property consists of a narrow u-shaped access road with mobile homes around the interior and exterior of this road. Although the 1953 Des Moines zoning ordinance prohibited mobile home parks in the city, the owner of the property obtained a certificate of occupancy for the mobile home park in 1955. The historical record is not clear, but its use as a mobile home park dates back to some time between 1947 and 1955.

The best record documenting historical use is an aerial photograph from 1963. The photograph depicts “permanent homes that are in close proximity to each other with additional structures attached to the homes.”

Current photographs depict the property as:

[A] congested, dilapidated, and hazardous jumble of structures. Many of the mobile homes are within feet of each other based on the addition of porches, decks, and living space. Residents park cars throughout the property narrowing portions of the already inadequate access road. Bulk trash items—such as tires, boats, and storage bins—are littered throughout the property. Grills, fences, gardens, and children’s toys also crowd the property.

The city did not issue any warnings or citations regarding the use of the property as a mobile home park until 2014. In 2014, a zoning administrator notified Ogden by letter of numerous violations of the 1955 Des Moines Municipal Code, under which the original certificate of occupancy had been awarded. These included setback violations, failure to maintain the access road, and additions to trailers among other issues. The letter also warned that the park’s violations posed a threat to the health and safety of the occupants.

Ogden did not take any action to remedy the violations. In October 2014, the city sought an injunction to close the park for the above listed violations. At trial the Des Moines Fire Marshall testified that the proximity of the mobile homes and the narrow access road created potentially dangerous conditions for residents.

The trial court found the fact that the occupancy permit was issued is proof enough that the property was in compliance with the above regulations at the time that the legally nonconforming use was established. This means that Ogden had the right to continue his nonconforming use subject to the laws in place in 1955 as long as the nature and character of the use as it existed in 1955 is not changed.

The court held that even under the laws in place in 1955, the certificate of occupancy should be revoked as the park poses a threat to “the safety of life or property”. The court also held that, “’use of [the] property has intensified beyond acceptable limitations’ because the conditions ‘pose a real threat in the event of an emergency.’”

Ogden appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals arguing that the court was wrong to find that the nonconforming use posed a threat to life or property and that the use had been unlawfully expanded. He also argued that estoppel prevents the city from obtaining an injunction.

In addition to procedural questions relevant to this case the Court of Appeals examined the questions of nonconforming use and whether estoppel prevented the city from obtaining an injunction to close the park.

Nonconforming Use A nonconforming use is “one that lawfully existed prior to the time a zoning ordinance was enacted or changed, and continues after the enactment of the ordinance even though the use fails to comply with the restrictions of the ordinance.” A nonconforming use may continue indefinitely until abandoned, but it may not be “enlarged or extended”. The Des Moines Municipal Code adds that a nonconforming use may lose its protected status if discontinuance is “necessary for the safety of life or property”.

The Iowa Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the addition of structures or the expansion of homes in a mobile home park constitutes and an unlawful expansion of the nonconforming use. Other state courts, however, have found that replacing mobile homes with larger models or enlarging existing mobile homes in violation of setback requirements may constitute an unlawful intensification of the nonconforming use.

The Appeals Court found that:

Although this mobile home park has not changed in size or use, the record demonstrates it has grown within its borders in the numbers and location of structures attached to the mobile homes resulting in a narrowing of open space on the roadways and between the homes. […] these changes over a half century have enhanced and intensified the non-conforming use to the point where it is a danger to life and property. […] Ogden’s use of the property is not a lawful intensification of an existing nonconforming use. The present congestion and crowding between structures and narrowing the roadway changes the nature and character of the 1955 non-conforming use and presents a danger to residents and neighbors of the park.

Equitable Estoppel Further, Ogden argued that equitable estoppel bars the city from closing the mobile home park. The Court Defined equitable estoppel as, “a common law doctrine preventing one party who has made certain representations from taking unfair advantage of another when the party making the representations changes its position to the prejudice of the party who relied upon the representations.”

The court states that to prove estoppel Ogden must demonstrate:

  1. a false representation or concealment of material fact by the city,
  2. a lack of knowledge of the true facts by [Ogden],
  3. the city’s intention the representation be acted upon, and
  4. reliance upon the representations by [Ogden] to their prejudice and injury.

The court found that Ogden’s claim failed under the first element of the test. The city’s failure to enforce the zoning ordinance does not amount to false representation or concealment of material fact. The city does not notify property owners of every infraction. Instead the city’s enforcement is triggered by complaints.

The court affirmed the grant of the city’s request for an injunction against Ogden’s use of the property as a mobile home park.

Chief Judge Danilson partially dissented. He argues that the city failed to prove either that the mobile home part exceeded its original non-conforming use or that it poses a threat to the safety of people or property. In his opinion, there is no conclusive evidence of the condition or number of homes in the part in 1955, and the size and use of the park have not changed. He argues that although the condition of the park has likely deteriorated, there are less dramatic ways to improve conditions in the park.

Further, Danilson argues that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the park poses a danger to people or property. The city or fire department have not taken any actions based on unsafe conditions, and the fire chief’s testimony was too general to draw any specific conclusions about the park’s safety.

Nonconforming use provision preventing re-leasing of mobile home park lot when tenant leaves found unconstitutional

by Hannah Dankbar

State ex rel. Sunset Estate Properties, LLC v. Village of Lodi
Ohio Supreme Court, March 10, 2015

Sunset Properties, L.L.C. and Meadowview Village, Inc. both own property in the village of Lodi where they operate mobile-home parks. Both of the properties are in R-2 zones, which do not allow for mobile-home parks. The mobile-home parks were established before establishing the zone as an R-2 zone, so they are considered legal nonconforming uses under R.C. 713.15.

In 1987 the village of Lodi passed Lodi Zoning Code 1280.05(a), which reads;

Whenever a nonconforming use has been discontinued for a period of six months or more, such discontinuance shall be considered conclusive evidence of an intention to legally abandon the nonconforming use. At the end of the six-month period of abandonment, the nonconforming use shall not be re-established, and any further use shall be in conformity with the provisions of this Zoning Code. In the case of nonconforming mobile homes, their absence or removal from the lot shall constitute discontinuance from the time of absence or removal.

This ordinance is specific towards each individual mobile home; meaning that when a tenant leaves a mobile home and the lot stands vacant for more than six months, Lodi will not reconnect water and electrical service for the new tenant. This results in the mobile home park owners not being able to rent these lots and essentially losing their property. The property owners claim that this ordinance is unconstitutional on its face.

The property owners claim that this ordinance violates the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution and Section 16 Article 1 of the Ohio Constitution. these clauses provide that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. In Akron v Chapman the Ohio Supreme Court held, “Zoning ordinances contemplate the gradual elimination of nonconforming uses within a zoned area, and, where an ordinance accomplishes such a result without depriving a property owner of a vested property right, it is generally held to be constitutional.”  The state and local governments have wide reaching powers to regulate land use, but that power is not unlimited.

The last sentence of the ordinance deprives the owner of the ability to use the property that was considered legal before the adoption of this ordinance. Even though the mobile home tenant is the one who makes the decision to leave, the park owner is the one who loses their property right to use their entire property in a way that was legal before the adoption of this ordinance. This deprivation trumps Lodi’s goals of promoting development and protecting property values. All other parts of this ordinance are constitutional, it is only the last part that cannot be applied.

The dissenting opinion argues that there are non-constitutional issues in this case that can be addressed to resolve this case without making constitutional claims. The property owners claimed that the ordinance conflicted with state law. The majority found the ordinance ambiguous as to whether Lodi would classify the individual lots as nonconforming uses. The dissent argued that this issue should have been addressed and decided before the constitutional issue.

 

 

Landowner’s marina operation not legally nonconforming, but rather was limited, occasional, sporadic

by Hannah Dankbar

Walworth County v West Rod Cottage Industries LLC
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, January 14, 2015

Fred’s Tap is located on Lake Beulah in Walworth County. It opened in 1961 and consists of two pieces of land divided by Stringers Bridge Road. The “tavern” parcel is adjacent to a channel leading into Lake Beulah, and the “lake” parcel consists of a cottage, garage, and parking area along the main body of Lake Beulah. Both properties have areas to moor boats. West Rod bought the land of Fred’s Tap in the early 2000s.

In 1971 Walworth County enacted a shoreline zoning ordinance (§ 74-179) which zoned the tavern parcel as B-3, Waterfront Business District. In this area ten or fewer boat rentals and “boat liveries” are allowed. Conditional uses allowed in B-3 include, “[t]averns and bars, [y]achting clubs and marinas, and boat liveries” (which the court assumes to be liveries operating with more than ten boats). The county zoned the lake parcel as C-4, Lowland Resource Conservation District. Marinas and boat liveries are prohibited in this district, but boating is allowed.

In 2012 the County issued a citation to West Rod for operating a boat marina/access cite in the C-4 zoning district.”  The trial court upheld the citation, and West Rod appealed.  The questions in this case are whether the use the County is trying to prevent was a use that lawfully existed when the zoning was first imposed upon the lake parcel, and if so, whether that use continued uninterrupted after the zoning ordinance was enacted.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recognized that a legal nonconforming use is (1) an active and actual use of the land and buildings that existed prior to the commencement of the zoning ordinance and (2) that has continued in the same or a related way until the present. The burden is on the property owner to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the nonconforming use existed at the time of the adoption of the ordinance and has continued since. This burden includes the requirement that the property owner show that the use was “so active and actual that it can be said he [or she] has acquired a ‘vested interest’ in its continuance.”

From this statement of the law the court concluded:

  • The leasing of boat slips is the “use” at issue;
  • The County has the burden to prove that Fred’s Tap was leasing boat slips and that such activity was not allowed without a conditional use permit as to the “tavern” parcel and not at all on the “lake” parcel; and
  • West Rod bears the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that its leasing of boat slips was an active and actual use that existed prior to 1971 and has continued as the same or a related use until the present such that it is a valid nonconforming use.

After chastising both West Rod and the County for “fundamental deficits” in their arguments, the court concluded that the County had met its burden to prove that Fred’s Tap was using its property to rent boats in 2011 in violation of the code, but that West Rod failed to meet its burden to show that a valid nonconforming use of the property existed.  The evidence at best showed a limited and occasional rental of boat slips as of 1971 and thereafter until 2010 when West Rod began large-scale boat slip rentals.  West Rod’s evidence may have been sufficient had the use at issue been the rental of boats (a “boat livery” business), but it was not sufficient to show that a marina was actively operating either prior to 1971 or in the years up to 2010.

Judgment for the County was affirmed.

Non-conforming use protections may apply to entire mobile home park, not individual home sites

by Gary Taylor

Heck v. City of Pacific and City of Pacific Board of Zoning Adjustment
Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, October 28, 2014

The Hecks have operated Pacific Mobile Home Manor on the same tract of land since 1983.  Within Pacific Manor is a mobile home pad addressed as 303 South Second Street, which is positioned approximately 14 feet from the pad to its south, and the same distance from the pad to its north.  When renters moved out with their mobile home in the late 2000s, the Hecks attempted to install a new mobile home of the same size on the vacant pad around two years later.  The city of Pacific, however, informed the Hecks that the new mobile home could not be placed upon the pat unless they obtained a variance from the city code provision – adopted in 1996 – that requires 20-foot spacing between mobile homes or other structures.  Mr. Heck testified before the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) that he was under the impression that he already had a variance for the pad because the pad and mobile home on the pad were permitted when he bought Pacific Manor in 1983.  The ZBA voted to deny the variance, and the Hecks appealed.

The Hecks argued that Pacific Manor existed in its present configuration, including the spacing of mobile home pads, prior to the adoption of the 20-foot spacing requirement in 1996; in other words, that their legal nonconforming use applies to the mobile home park as a whole and not on a “per pad” basis.  Mr.  Heck testified “I mean I can’t really move all the trailers out and get rid of them and totally reorganize that all.  So I’m just trying to maintain the property and keep it as nice as I can.”

The city, on the other hand, argued that even if the present configuration and spacing of pads in Pacific Manor was a lawful nonconforming use, it has since been extinguished by “structural alteration” – moving the old mobile home off the pad.  Furthermore, the city argued that the nonconforming use was abandoned because the pad sat vacant without a mobile home for two years.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the BZA did not analyze the case as a nonconforming use case; rather, the BZA was simply concerned with whether the Hecks’ application met the standard for a variance.  “A nonconforming use differs from a variance.”  The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the ZBA to hear evidence on the issue of whether the Hecks are entitled to continue a lawful nonconforming use, noting that “if in fact the Hecks have continued their lawful nonconforming use of Pacific Manor, the spacing requirements [of the city code] do not apply and no variance is needed.”

Horse rescue project considered “commercial production” under (MI) Right to Farm Act; case remanded to consider GAAMPs

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Township of Webber v Bruce Austin
(Michigan Court of Appeals, April 22, 2014)

In 2011 Bruce Austin began a horse rescue project in the Township of Webber, Michigan on commercially zoned property that he had purchased for this purpose. The Township filed a complaint against Austin, alleging that the project violated the regulations of the commercial zoning district.  The Township was granted a preliminary injunction forcing Austin to temporarily cease his horse rescue project. At trial, Austin utilized the Michigan Right to Farm Act (RTFA) as an affirmative defense, stating that even though he had not yet made a profit from the project, he intended to in the future. The trial court deemed the animal rescue operation to be a valid nonconforming use of the property and was not a nuisance, and that therefore the use of the property was protected by the Michigan RTFA.  Following the trial court’s judgment, Austin filed for costs and attorney fees as well as costs for the transport, care, and feeding of the horses during the trial. Austin was granted attorney fees and costs but was denied animal care costs. The Township appealed both the judgment and the attorney fee award to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals addressed three issues critical to the outcome (1) characterization of the horse rescue project as a nonconforming use, (2) the application of generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPs) under the RTFA, and (3) the horse rescue project as “commercial production” under the RTFA.

Nonconforming use.  A nonconforming use is “a vested right in the use of particular property that does not conform to zoning restrictions, but is protected because the use lawful existed before the zoning regulation’s effective date.”…When a property is transferred to a new owner, the nonconforming use may continue but cannot be expanded…To be a valid continuation of a nonconforming use, the new owner’s use must be “substantially of the same size and the same essential nature as the use existing at the time of passage of a valid zoning ordinance.” The court concluded that because the commercial zoning designation was in effect prior to Austin beginning his project, and the project was significantly different than the previous use of the property (no livestock was raised or sold), the horse rescue project was not a nonconforming use.

GAAMPs.  The township argued that the precedent set in the recently decided case of  Lima Township v. Bateson requires that a person asserting the RTFA as a defense has the burden of proving that the activity at issue is a protected operation, and that it complies with the generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPs). Because the trial court’s refusal to consider the GAAMPs is directly contrary to the Bateson holding, the court determined that remand for further proceedings was necessary.

Commercial production. Finally, the township contended that the trial court’s determination that Austin’s horse rescue project was a commercial production protected by the RTFA was incorrect. The RTFA only protects activities associated with the commercial production of farm products.  While the RTFA itself does not define “commercial production,” previous cases have stated that commercial production means “the act of producing or manufacturing an item intended to be marketed and sold at a profit….There is no minimum level of sales that must be reached before the RTFA is applicable.  The trial court concluded that Austin successfully proved that he intended to operate the horse rescue project as a commercial production, and that absent clear error, the Court of Appeals could not overturn that assessment. This portion of the judgment was held by the Court of Appeals.

The judgment was reversed by the Court of Appeals and the case was remanded for rehearing the trial court level.

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.

Owner of fourplex forfeited right to continue as nonconforming use when two apartments remained unoccupied for more than one year

by Rachel Greifenkamp and Gary Taylor

Rodehorst Brothers v. City of Norfolk Board of Adjustment

(Nebraska Supreme Court, March 28, 2014)

The City of Norfolk, Nebraska zoning code includes the following provision with regard to nonconforming uses:

In the event that a nonconforming use is discontinued, or its normal operation stopped, for a period of one year, the use of the same shall thereafter conform to the uses permitted in the district in which it is located.

The Rodehorst Brothers partnerships owns a fourplex in Norfolk an area zoned R-2 for one and two family use. The fourplex is a legal, nonconforming use. In 2010 and 2011 Rodehorst applied for building permits to replace a roof, fix some electrical issues, and remodel the apartments in the building. The first two were granted by the building inspector but the third (apartment remodels) was denied because the inspector concluded that Rodehorst had forfeited its right to continue its nonconforming use of a fourplex because several of the apartments in the building had been unoccupied for more than one year.

Rodehorst appealed the denial of the permit to the City of Norfolk Board of Adjustment (Board), and also requested that they grant a use variance to allow the building to continue operating as a fourplex. Rodehorst argued that simply failing to rent out the apartments did not cause a forfeiture of the right to operate as a fourplex, and that it had been trying to “fix up” the building for years.  Rodehorst also argued that it would suffer an undue hardship without the use variance.  The City argued that the right to operate the building as a fourplex was forfeited because the apartments were unoccupied for more than one year.  The City further argued that the Board did not have authority to grant a use variance because the zoning code defines “variance” as “relief from or variation of the provisions of [the zoning code], other than use regulations, as applied to a specific piece of property, as distinct from rezoning.” The Board agreed with the City on both arguments, and Rodehorst appealed the decision to the district court.

At the district court Rodehorst employed the same arguments but went on to say that the Board’s ruling was an unconstitutional taking. The district court, however, affirmed the Board’s ruling in all respects.

Rodehorst appealed the decision of the District Court to the Nebraska State Supreme Court using the same three arguments as when it appealed to the District Court.

Right to continue nonconforming use.  Nebraska Revised Statutes provides that, with regard to nonconforming uses for cities of the first class, “if a nonconforming use is in fact discontinued for a period of twelve months, such right to the nonconforming use shall be forfeited and any future use of the building and premises shall conform to the regulation.”  The Supreme Court first noted that the choice of the word “discontinued,” as opposed to “abandoned,” is important.  Abandonment requires not only a cessation of the nonconforming use, but also an intent by the user to abandon the nonconforming use.  Where a legislature or other zoning authority has used the word “discontinued”…instead of “abandoned” their purpose is ‘to do away with the need to proved intent to abandon.'”  This squares with the plain, ordinary meaning of the term “discontinue,”  and is consistent with the notion that nonconforming uses are disfavored because they reduce the effectiveness of the zoning ordinance, depress property values, and contribute to the growth of urban blight.

Rodehorst argued that the nature and characteristics of the building control; in other words, that the building is and always was divided into four separate living units.  The Court disagreed. After reviewing cases from several other jurisdictions, the Court concluded that

The degree of occupancy is the critical factor in determining whether a multifamily dwelling nonconforming use remains in effect, while the existing characteristics of the building (such as separate units and features) generally go to whether the user intended to abandon the nonconforming use.  As noted earlier, intent to abandon is not relevant because [Nebraska] zoning laws speak in terms of discontinuance….Thus, the degree of occupancy of the building is the central inquiry.

Noting that “this is not a situation where the discontinuance was involuntary” but rather that no effort had been made to rent the apartments for a number of years, the Court ruled that “a discontinuance period will run where the landlord did not really try to rent the premises.” Thus, the Court affirmed the district court on this argument.

Authority to grant use variance.  Citing the relevant provision of Nebraska Revised Statutes, which allows for the grant of a variance “when by reason of exceptional narrowness, shallowness, or shape of a specific piece of property…or exceptional topographic conditions” the Court denied Rodehorst’s argument for a use variance because the request was based on its desire to continue using its building as a fourplex, not because of any physical characteristic of its property.

Taking.  While acknowledging that discontinuance provisions may work a taking in some cases, the Court denied that such a claim could be sustained in this case.  Using the three-factor test from Penn Central, the Court concluded that (1) even assuming a 50 percent diminution of value, that level of loss generally does not equate to a regulatory taking; (2) Rodehorst bought the property when it was already a nonconforming use, and thus his reasonable investment-backed expectations should have been that he could continue it as a fourplex only so long as its use as such was not discontinued for a period of one year; and (3) the character of the governmental action – to gradually eliminate nonconforming uses over time – is a recognized good.

Addition of third support post did not cause billboard to lose nonconforming use status

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Lamar Central Outdoor, LLC v. State of Wisconsin Department of Transportation

(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, February 6, 2014)

Lamar Central Outdoor Advertising owns a sign located along Interstate highway 39/90/94 in the Town of Dekorra. On March 18, 1972 WIS. STAT. §84.30 became effective. This statute generally prohibits construction of signs along state or interstate highways subject to specified exceptions; however, because the sign in question was in existence before the statute was enacted it was granted nonconforming status. Section 84.30(5)(bm) also provides that if a lawful nonconforming sign is enlarged, replaced, relocated, or if additional signs are erected, the sign loses its lawful nonconforming status and is subject to removal. In November, 2010 the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) ordered Lamar to take down the sign because modifications had been made to the support structure. The DOT said that a third wooden support beam had been added to the sign along with several other modifications. The DOT argued that this modification constituted a substantial change to the structure, causing the sign to lose its legal nonconforming status.

The Division of Hearings and Appeals (DHA) heard the case and determined that the addition of the third wooden post constituted a substantial change but the other modifications did not. The DHA concluded that the sign had therefore lost its legal nonconforming status. A circuit court later reversed the decision made by the DHA because the addition of the third wooden post did not constitute a substantial change.  The DOT appealed the ruling and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court ruling in favor of Lamar. The Court of Appeals decided that the support post constituted maintenance and repair because it did not enlarge or expand the sign, nor change the look or appearance of it, and did not exceed fifty percent of the replacement value of the sign.  “From all that we can glean from the record [the third post was] added to stabilize the sign structure, a maintenance and repair function.”  As a result, the sign did not lose its nonconforming status.

Issuance of conditional use permit for nonconforming use does not usurp landowner’s nonconforming use rights

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Lorraine White, Trustee v. City of Elk River

(Minnesota Supreme Court, December 4, 2013)

Wapiti Park campground in the City of Elk River, Minnesota began operating in 1973, seven years prior to the City enacting a zoning ordinance that, at first, did not permit campgrounds in that location, then permitted them as conditional uses, then even later again removed campgrounds as either conditional or permitted uses. Wapiti Park applied for and was granted a conditional use permit in 1984 (during the period of time when they were allowed as conditional uses) even though it could have continued operating as a nonconforming use.  When Wapiti Park later violated the conditions of the conditional use permit the city revoked the permit and asserted that Wapiti Park was no longer authorized to operate the campground.  Wapiti Park sued the city.  The district court found in favor of Wapiti Park but the Court of Appeals reversed.  Wapiti Park appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

One question addressed in this case is whether a landowner of a nonconforming use who voluntarily complies with a later-enacted zoning ordinance relinquishes the nonconforming-use status and the right to operate under that status in the future. This issue has been answered in opposite ways in other jurisdictions. The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that a landowner does not surrender the right to continue a nonconforming use by obtaining a conditional use permit unless the landowner affirmatively waives the right to be treated as a nonconforming use.  Waiving a right in Minnesota requires knowledge of the right and an intent to waive the right. In this case, the City of Elk River had the burden of proving that Wapiti Park had both knowledge of their right to remain a nonconforming use and intended to waive the right when they applied for the conditional use permit.  Although Wapiti Park knew of its nonconforming use rights as a campground in 1984 when it applied for a conditional use permit, the city produced nothing for the record to indicate that Wapiti Park intended to waive or subordinate its rights to the city’s zoning regime.   The court concluded that the conditional use permit did not alter the Park’s status as a nonconforming use.

The second issue addressed was whether the city had authority to terminate the nonconforming use by revoking the conditional use permit. Minn. Stat. secs. 465.01 and 462.57 describe four circumstances under which a nonconforming use may be terminated.  They include eminent domain, discontinuance of the nonconforming use, destruction of the nonconforming use, and judicial determination that the use is a nuisance.  The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Wapiti Park may continue to operate the campground as a nonconforming use because these statutes do not include the revocation of a previously issued conditional use permit as a condition of termination, and none of the identified four circumstances applied to Wapiti Park.  Interestingly, the court identified a nonconforming use as “a constitutionally protected property right,” citing a Connecticut court case and not the Minnesota constitution in support of that proposition.

Archives

Categories