MN county ordinance required formal adoption of planning commission findings on the record at a meeting

by Hannah Dankbar

Bio Wood Processing, LLC v. Rice County Board of Commissioners
Minnesota Court of Appeals, April 13, 2015

Bio Wood Processing recycles wood products into bedding for animals and mulch. Its facility is located in Rice County, near the City of Faribault. The area of the facility is zoned as urban-reserve, and any agriculture businesses must obtain a conditional use permit (CUP). Bio Wood received a CUP in 2011 that restricted the hours they could grind wood.

In 2013 Bio Wood asked to amend its CUP; this included an expansion of its hours of operation. The planning commission allowed longer wood grinding hours, but reduced the total hours of operation. In 2014 Bio Wood applied for another amendment that asked for a new set of conditions that did not include any restrictions on hours of operation. After hearing from company representative and community members who live near the facility, the planning commission took a voice vote and decided to recommend denial of the application.

Between May 1 and 13, 2014 a written document entitled “Findings of Fact” was written with notes from the Planning Commission meeting to pass along to the Board of Commissioners. The Board of Commissioners followed the recommendation and denied the application. Bio Woods appealed.

Bio Woods claimed that the county erred in judgment in multiple ways; (1) the planning commission failed to make findings of fact on the record, (2) the board failed to engage in reasoned decision-making, (3) the board’s findings are not supported by the factual record and (4) the board treated applicants who are similarly situated differently.

Bio Woods claimed that the Planning Commission did not meet the requirements of the county ordinance, which states in part that “the report from the planning commission to the County Board shall take the form of formal findings on the record.” The county argued that nothing in the ordinance required them to write the findings themselves or read them out loud on the record. A notary public did certify a portion of a transcript, but not the section that mentions findings of fact. The court found the plain meaning of the ordinance required the commission to make formal findings in the course of a public meeting, either by stating them orally or by approving a previously prepared document that includes written findings. The court determined that the county did not satisfy the plain meaning of the county ordinance because county staff prepared written findings from a meeting after the meeting happened and submitted the written findings to the County Board without the Planning Commission ever formally adopting them  “on the record.”

The court reversed the Board of Commissioner’s decision to deny the CUP. The matter went back to the county to make valid findings in this case.

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