South Dakota Supreme Court defers to local interpretation of zoning ordinance

by Eric Christianson

Croell Redi-Mix v. Pennington County Board of Commissioners
(South Dakota Supreme Court, December 13, 2017)

Croell Redi-Mix owns and operates a quarry located in Pennington County, South Dakota. The quarry has been in operation since the 1970s and was acquired by Croell in 2015. Croell intended to expand the operation. After the quarry was opened, but before it was acquired by Croell, Pennington County adopted zoning ordinances. The quarry falls into the “A-1 General Agricultural District” which allows “temporary quarries” ,by right, and mining operations, provided that a construction permit is obtained.

In late 2015, working in consultation with staff from the Pennington County Planning Department, Croell submitted an application for a construction permit to expand its operations. On February 8, 2016 staff issued a recommendation that the permit be granted subject to 11 conditions. The Pennington County Planning Commission reviewed the report and approved the application subject to the recommended conditions that same day.

On February 10, 2016, the Pennington County Board of Commissioners received a letter signed by 37 area residents requesting an appeal of the approval of the permit. The Board of Commissioners held a special meeting on March 2 to consider the appeal. Opponents expressed concerns about the quarry’s expansion including: dust, traffic, availability of groundwater, runoff, and depreciation of property values. At a second hearing the board voted 4-1 to reverse the approval of the permit.

Croell appealed to the circuit court which reversed the Board of Commissioners decision finding:

  1. The residents who sent the letter did not have standing to appeal.
  2. The Commissioners misinterpreted their own ordinance in their decision.
  3. The Commissioners’ decision to deny the permit was arbitrary.

The Board of Commissioners appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court which granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court reconsidered the three findings of the circuit court.

Standing to Sue Pennington County’s Zoning Ordinance states:

“Any action taken by the Planning Director in administering or enforcing Section 507(A) may be reviewed by the Pennington County Board of Commissioners upon the request of any person affected by such action.” [PCZO § 507(A)(7)(f)]

Croell argues, and the circuit court agreed that this right to appeal only extends to considerations of erosion and storm water control. The Supreme Court reads this passage differently, interpreting the word ‘administer,’ ‘affected,’ and ‘any’ above quite broadly:

PCZO § 507(A) is titled “Erosion and Storm Water Control,” the right to appeal under §507(A)(7)(f) extends to anyone “affected” by “any action taken by the Planning Director in administering . . . Section 507(A)[.]” (Emphasis added.) Noticeably absent from §507(A)(7)(f) is any language limiting the right to appeal to matters involving erosion and storm – water control. Thus, §507(A)(7)(f) provides a right to appeal any action taken by the Planning Director under §507(A). In this case, the action challenged is the Director’s issuance of a construction permit — i.e., the Director’s administering of §507(A)(3).

Because the individuals appealing would be affected by the zoning administrators decision, they have standing to appeal.

Statutory Interpretation Croell argues that the use of its property as a quarry is a permitted use in an A-1 General Agricultural district given that the statute permits temporary quarries and requires only a building permit for the “extraction of sand, gravel, or minerals.”

The County claims that Croell would need to obtain a seperate mining permit as required in the plain language of the ordinance which states, “no extraction of any mineral or substance […] shall be conducted without a Mining Permit.” Here the court identifies a question of statutory interpretation and supports the Commissioners’ interpretation. Further the Court cites the US Supreme Court’s opinion from Chevron v. Nat. Res. Def. Council (1984), which established the principle of “Chevron deference.” Chevron established the principle that courts will defer to the interpretation of those administering a statute as long as that interpretation is “based on a permissible construction of the statute.” In this case the South Dakota Supreme Court found that the Pennington Board of Commissioners interpretation was permissible.

Arbitrariness Because the Supreme Court found that the Board of Commissioners was able to consider more than erosion and storm water control in its decision making, the argument for arbitrariness is moot. The Board’s decision was based on evidence in the scope of its review.

The Supreme Court found that the circuit court erred in reversing the Commissioners’ decision.

City’s interpretation of own ordinance entitled to deference

by Gary Taylor

Mertz v. City of Elgin, North Dakota
(North Dakota Supreme Court, July 21, 2011)

Melvin Mertz applied for a permit to build a fence on the lot line at the edge of his residential property in Elgin, North Dakota. Elgin’s city attorney opined the fence violated city ordinances that prohibited a structure from being built within seven feet of the lot line along a side yard. Elgin’s city council denied Mertz’s application based upon the city attorney’s opinion. The district court affirmed the denial by Elgin’s city council, stating the interpretation and application of the ordinances was reasonable.  Mertz appealed.

The North Dakota Supreme Court observed that the local governing body’s decision must be affirmed unless it acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or unreasonably, or if there is not substantial evidence supporting the decision. “The interpretation of a zoning ordinance by a governmental entity is a quasi-judicial act, and a reviewing court should give deference to the judgment and interpretation of the governing body rather than substitute its judgment for that of the enacting body.” The city attorney opined the proposed fence would violate city ordinances prohibiting the building of a structure within seven feet of the lot line of a side yard. A structure is, “Something constructed or built, or a piece of work artificially built up or composed of parts joined together in some definite manner.” The city attorney opined a fence is a structure, which meant a fence must be seven feet from the lot line, and the Elgin city council agreed with the interpretation.  The Court concluded based on the definition that it was reasonable for Elgin to decide a fence is a structure and prohibited within seven feet of the side yard lot line.

Mertz argued that if a fence is a structure, the ordinances lead to an absurd result where a fence can only be built seven feet from the lot line. The Court stated that Elgin has the authority to regulate and restrict the size of yards and locations of structures, and that Mertz had not proven there is no legitimate governmental purpose or that the ordinances are arbitrary.

Mertz also argued the Elgin city council acted without making findings on evidence, and there was not substantial evidence to support or justify its decision; however, the city council minutes showed the city council relied upon the city attorney’s opinion, and that opinion was available and contained the rationale of why the proposed fence would violate the ordinances. The record shows Elgin had on file Mertz’s permit application, a drawing of Mertz’s lot with the proposed fence, a statement of the zoning and planning commission that the members of the commission had no issue with the fence based upon a visual examination, the city attorney’s letter of his opinion based upon a reading of the ordinances, and a copy of the ordinances. The record supports the city council’s decision, and we can discern the rationale for the city council’s decision.

Mertz argued other residents in Elgin had structures within seven feet of their lot lines, and the drawing included with Mertz’s permit application showed his neighbor’s garage is twelve inches from the lot line. However, there was nothing on the record indicating whether the ordinances were in effect when these structures were built. From the record, the Court could not say Mertz’s permit application was arbitrarily denied while others were not prohibited from building within seven feet of the side yard lot line.

The Supreme Court affirmed the district court order affirming the decision by the Elgin city council.

Board of adjustment given substantial latitude in interpreting county ordinance

by Allison Arends

James C. Rule v. Iowa County Board of Adjustment
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, March 18, 2010)

James Rule owned two parcels of land in the Town (township) of Dodgeville Iowa County, both of which were zoned A-1, Exclusive Agricultural. Quarrying operations are allowed in A-1 with a conditional use permit.  Rule operated a quarry operation on one of the parcels of land and planned to extend his operation to his adjacent property, but was required to first apply for a conditional use permit in order to begin mining. Before applying, Rule sought to determine whether the Board would waive one of the Iowa County Zoning ordinance provisions which stated, “active mining shall not take place within five hundred feet of any residential district or any structure used for dwelling purposes.”

Rule filed an application with the Board requesting a variance that allowed mining at least 200 feet from the residential district boundary or 500 feet from a residential dwelling. Rule’s interpretation of the ordinance was that the active mining had to be at least 500 feet from either the residential district boundary or a dwelling. Neighboring property owners objected to Rules application for two reasons, (1) the variance requested was a use variance, not an area variance, which the Board does not have authority to grant and (2) the ordinance dictates that active mining must be at least 500 feet from the boundary line of a residential district and not from the dwellings within the district.

At the hearing, the Board heard position statements from both parties as well as a legal opinion from the Iowa County attorney. The attorney concluded Rule’s petition to be for a use variance and therefore, in his opinion, the Board did not have authority to grant the permit. The attorney also noted that active mining, under the ordinance, must be a minimum of 500 feet from a residential district boundary line, not the dwellings within that district. Based on the attorney’s opinion the Board voted, “to deny the application for non-metallic mining within 500 feet of the residential district.” The circuit court affirmed the Board’s decision.

On appeal, Rule contested the Board and circuit court’s decisions that he sought a use variance instead of an area variance, and their construction of the 500-foot requirement. Rule argued that he was seeking an area variance because he was looking to only modify the “area restriction” created by the condition (4)(b) of the AB-1 subsection. The court first evaluated how much deference a county board of adjustment’s has in the interpretation of a county ordinance, and concluded that the board’s construction of the ordinance is lawful if it is reasonable and there is not a more reasonable interpretation.

In order to determine whether the Board erred in identifying Rule’s petition as a use variance, the court looked to the distinction between the two types of variances:

“A use variance is one that permits a use other than that prescribed by the zoning ordinance in a particular district. An area variance … has no relationship to a change of use. It is primarily a grant to erect, alter, or use a structure for a permitted use in a manner other than that prescribed by the restrictions of a zoning ordinance. Area variances usually modify such features as setbacks, frontage requirements, height, or lot size”

Because a use variance has more of an impact on a community than an area variance, the standards for obtaining a use variance are higher, and the property owner must show that, “in absence of a variance, no reasonable or feasible use can be made of the property.” the court found the Board’s decision, which identified Rule’s requested variance as a use variance, to be reasonable because, “the 500-foot requirement was intended to protect the neighboring residential properties from the significant impact of a mining operation and that this purpose distinguishes it from restricting on building heights and set backs, which are typically the subject of area variances.”

In response to Rule’s second claim, the court found that the Board was reasonable in its construction of the ordinance, which recognized that active mining must be at least 500 feet away from a residential district boundary line or any dwelling which is not located within a residential boundary line. The court found Rule’s construction of the ordinance unreasonable because the obvious purpose of the ordinance is to protect neighboring residences from the disturbances of quarry operation. The court found that it is reasonable to ensure that all dwellings in a residential district, even those that are not yet built, are protected by a 500-foot buffer zone.

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