by Gary Taylor
Residential and Agricultural Advisory Committee, LLC et al. v. Dyersville City Council
Iowa Supreme Court, December 9, 2016
The Dyersville City Council voted to rezone the area containing the site of the 1989 movie Field of Dreams from A-1 Agricultural to C-2 Commercial in order to facilitate the development of a a 24-field baseball and softball complex, along with the farmhouse and original baseball field used for the movie which would continue to be maintained as a tourist attraction. Community members filed two writs of certiorari to challenge the rezoning on a number of grounds. The District Court annulled the writs and found in favor of the city council. This appeal followed. The Iowa Supreme Court engaged in a 20-page recitation of the facts of the case on its way to its 44-page decision. Only those relevant to the outcome of each challenge will be repeated here.
Quasi-judicial vs. legislative action. The petitioners argued that the city council’s actions were quasi-judicial in nature rather than legislative, and therefore the council should have been required to conduct a more formal fact-finding proceeding and make findings of fact in support of its decision. Quasi-judicial proceedings are also subject to greater judicial scrutiny when reviewed by an appellate court. Petitioners relied on the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Sutton v. Dubuque City Council in support of their position. In contrast, the city council maintained that the action of a legislative body in rezoning land is legislative in nature, which gives the legislative body wider latitude in the conduct of the proceedings. Courts also give greater deference to legislative decisions made by city councils and county boards of supervisors.
In ruling on this issue the Iowa Supreme Court reviewed Sutton and several other past cases. It recognized that in its Sutton decision the Court set forth three factors in determining whether zoning activities are quasi-judicial (versus legislative) in nature (1) [when the rezoning] occurs in response to a citizen application followed by a statutorily mandated public hearing; (2) [when] as a result of such applications, readily identifiable proponents and opponents weigh in on the process; and (3) the decision is localized in its application affecting a particular group of citizens more acutely than the public at large. Recognizing that the Court “cited these factors with approval” in Sutton, it noted that at the time it chose not to hold that all public zoning hearings should be classified as adjudicatory. It stated:
The Sutton Case dealt with a different situation than many of our previous zoning cases because it involved PUD zoning. We noted the ‘quasi-judicial character of municipal rezoning is particularly evident in matters involving PUD zoning.’ We discussed the distinction between traditional rezoning and PUD zoning:
Creating zoning districts and rezoning land are legislative actions, and…trial courts are not permitted to sit as ‘super zoning boards’ and overturn a board’s legislative efforts….The [PUD] concept varies from the traditional concept of zoning classifications. It permits a flexible approach to the regulation of land uses. Compliance must be measured against certain stated standards….Since the board was called upon to review an interpretation and application of a n ordinance…and the ordinance was not challenged per se, the board’s decision was ‘clearly quasi-judicial’.
Rather than follow Sutton, the Court found the present case to be “much more analogous” to the case of Montgomery v. Bremer County Board of Supervisors. In Montgomery, the county Board rezoned two parcels of land from agricultural to industrial after two rezoning petitions were filed. In Montgomery, the Court found that the zoning decision of the supervisors was “an exercise of its delegated police power,” and held that “the generally limited scope of review applicable to the case [was] to determine whether the decision by the Board to rezone [was] fairly debatable.” In making the analogy, the Court observed:
The city council [in the present case] was acting in a legislative function in furtherance of its delegated police powers. The council was not sitting ‘to determine adjudicative facts to decide the legal rights, privileges or duties of a particular party based on that party’s particular circumstances. The [decision] was not undertaken to weigh the legal rights of one party (the All-Star Ballpark Heaven) versus another party (the petitioners). The council weighed all of the information, reports, and comments available to it in order to determine whether rezoning was in the best interest of the city as a whole.
The Court held that the proper standard of review “in this case is the generally limited scope of review” utilized to “determine whether the decision…is fairly debatable.” A decision is “fairly debatable” when “reasonable minds may differ, or where the evidence provides a basis for a fair difference of opinion as to its application to a particular property.” If a rezoning decision is “fairly debatable” then a court will decline to substitute its judgment for that of the city council or board of supervisors.
Impartiality of the city council. The Court noted that, while it was true that several council members viewed the rezoning and the project as an opportunity for the city, each council member attended all meetings, read reports, listened to citizens speak for and against the project, asked questions, and investigated issues and concerns. Nothing in the record demonstrated that any council member had any conflict of interest. Several members participated in an economic development bus trip to Des Moines to discuss the project with legislators and state officials, but the Court found that mere participation in such activities for the potential benefit of the city does not establish partiality or bias. “Rather, this is more akin to the council members upholding their public duty by performing their due diligence in determining what state aid might be available to help with the project before any formal action was taken. The council make its decision based on what it believed was best for the community after a full and open discussion of the issues over many months.”
Decision was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable. A decision is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable when it is not authorized by statute, or is unsupported by the facts. For the reasons cited above, the Court declined to find in favor of the petitioners on these grounds.
Inconsistent with comprehensive plan. Under Iowa Code 414.3, zoning regulations “shall be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan.” The Court referred to its prior decision in Iowa Coal Mining Co. v. Monroe County for the principle that “compliance with the comprehensive plan requirement merely means that the zoning authorities have given ‘full consideration the problem presented, including the needs of the public, changing conditions, and the similarity of other land in the same area.'” The Court referred to the boilerplate language found in every plan that says rezonings should be made with consideration of the unique character of the area, the suitability of the land for the proposed use, the conservation of buildings or value, and the encouragement of the most appropriate use of the land. It noted that the Field of Dreams site is a unique parcel of land, and that the council considered the distinctiveness of the land and whether the proposed rezoning would be the best use of the site for the benefit of the community as a whole. The city’s community builder plan also specifically addresses the importance of preserving the site in order to maintain and increase tourism.
Illegal spot zoning. To determine whether illegal spot zoning has occurred, a court must consider (1) whether the new zoning is germane to an object within the police power; (2) whether there is a reasonable basis for making a distinction between the spot zoned land and the surrounding property; and (3) whether the rezoning is consistent with the comprehensive plan. Noting again the uniqueness of the Field of Dreams site, the Court refused to find this to be a case of illegal spot zoning even though the result is an island of commercial development surrounded by agriculturally zoned properties.
200-foot buffer zone. Under Iowa Code 414.5, if 20% or more of the landowners immediately adjacent to the property proposed to be rezoned protest the change, then the city council must approve the rezoning by a four-fifths vote. The rezoning applicants left out of the rezoning request a 200-foot buffer zone along the three sides of the perimeter of the property (leaving it as A-1 Agricultural). The petitioners challenged the use of this 200-foot buffer as a way to prevent nearby property owners from objecting to the project and thereby triggering the requirement of a unanimous vote. While the Court acknowledged that “at first blush the buffer zone can appear to be unfair,” the Court concluded that the buffer in fact provides a benefit to adjacent landowners by addressing their expressed concerns about hunting and farming operations directly adjacent to the ballfields. The Court also noted that other courts have validated the use of buffer zones to avoid supermajority requirements. Regardless, even if the 200-foot buffer was improper, the rezoning was adopted by 4-1 vote of the city council.
Incorrect legal description. While the notice of the original ordinance (Ordinance 770) contained errors in the legal description, the council corrected the legal description in the ordinance that ultimately rezoned the property (Ordinance 777). No new notices were published, however, for Ordinance 777. The Court does not require complete accuracy when providing notice. Neither Iowa Code nor the city ordinances require the publication of a complete legal description. The purpose of the notice requirement is to give the public reasonable notice of the pending action. The public was well aware of the ongoing proceedings, and no one was confused or misled by the inaccuracy of the legal description.
Equal Protection. Petitioners argued that all neighboring landowners were similarly situated, yet the 3-sided 200-foot buffer prevented those neighbors along the buffer from exercising the same right to object as the neighbors along the side of the property without the buffer. The Court found that the council’s decision met the rational basis test required by the Equal Protection clause in this case. The buffers, as described above, served a legitimate purpose of protecting the neighboring properties on the three sides.
Due Process. Petitioners and the public in general were given adequate notice. Further, they were heard in multiple public hearings. All community members wishing to speak were allowed to do so.
Based on all preceding points, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the rezoning of the Field of Dreams property.