City Council member’s removal from office violated his procedural due process protections

by Gary Taylor

Burke v. City Council of City of Lansing
Iowa Court of Appeals, February 22, 2017

Members of the Lansing City Council voted to remove city council member William Burke from office for claimed violations of our open meetings law (OML).  On one occasion the council issued an agenda for a closed session “to discuss strategy in matters that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent.”  After the agenda was issued, the city clerk requested an opinion from the Lansing city attorney as to whether the two topics she understood to be up for discussion actually qualified for closed session under the OML.  The city attorney opined that the topics did not, in fact, qualify for closed session.  The clerk forwarded the memo to the city council members, including Burke.  Burke notified the clerk that he disagreed with the clerk’s characterization of the purposes of the meeting as the clerk had reported them to the city attorney.  When the scheduled meeting was held the council voted 2-1 to go into closed session, with Burke being one of the two council members to vote in favor.  Later, the council held another special meeting on an unrelated matter.  Twenty-four-hour notice was not given.

Tensions between the council and residents resulted in an investigation by the Allamakee County attorney into the council’s actions.  The county attorney filed a petition alleging the two meetings violated the OML.  The attorney retained to represent the council and its members concluded the county attorney had “made some legitimate allegations,” and predicted fines, costs and attorney’s fees will likely be assessed against each council member.  The attorney set forth a potential settlement strategy she had discussed with the county attorney that would require Burke to resign from the council in exchange for dismissal of the lawsuit.  After a closed session of the council which Burke did not attend, the mayor petitioned the council to remove Burke from office for “willful misconduct and maladministration in office” in his handling of several matters relating to OML which resulted in litigation against the city and members of the council.  After a special meeting, the council voted 4-0 to remove Burke from office (Burke abstained from the vote).  Thereafter Burke challenged his removal in district court, raising several issues with the council’s proceedings.  The district court denied Burke’s petition, and Burke appealed.  The sole issue considered by the Court of Appeals was procedural due process.

Burke argued that the removal proceeding was fundamentally unfair because each member of the council who voted on his removal had a pecuniary conflict of interest in deciding his fate, and the “council itself generated the factual record necessary to sustain its decision, which perpetuates its conflict of interest.”  The Court of Appeals determined that Burke did not receive a “fair trial in a fair tribunal” as required by the Constitution.  The council members understood that they would eliminate their own financial exposure for possible violations of the OML if they removed Burke.  Furthermore, the council combined the prosecutorial function (by authorizing initiation of the removal process) with the adjudicative function (by presenting their own witness testimony to document their own personal knowledge of the grounds for removal).

Because the removal proceeding violated Burke’s right to procedural due process, the Court of Appeals sided with Burke and reversed the order of the district court.

 

 

Field of Dreams site cleared for development of baseball complex and tourist attraction

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.

Comprehensive plan amendments met Idaho statutory requirement for an “analysis” of power plant and utility locations

by Andrea Vaage and Gary Taylor

Burlile v. Payette Board of County Commissioners
Idaho Supreme Court, September 25, 2015

Alternate Energy Holdings Inc. (AEHI) became interested in constructing a nuclear power plant in Payette County, Idaho in 2009. The property the company was targeting was zoned agricultural. AEHI petitioned the County to revise the comprehensive plan so that the property could be zoned industrial. AEHI also submitted a Rezone and Development Agreement Application to the Payette County Planning and Zoning Commission. The County accepted the petition to amend the comprehensive plan and included additional language relating to energy producers looking to site facilities in the County. After the development agreement was made public in various forms, the County held a public hearing in December 2010 before the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC), during which the PZC recommended approval of the application for the nuclear power plant.

A neighboring landowner, H-Hook, and others appealed the decision to the Board of Commissioners (Board). A revision to the development agreement was made public and the Board received additional testimony from the public. In August 2011, the Board approved the decision of the PZC to approve the development application. H-Hook and other parties sought judicial review. H-Hook argued that (1) the comprehensive plan was invalid because it is missing components addressing power plant siting and power transmission corridors as required by Idaho Code section 67-6508; (2) the rezone was illegal spot zoning; and (3) the notice and hearing procedures employed by the County were in violation of due process. The district court rejected all arguments. H-Hook appealed.

Invalid Comprehensive Plan.  H-Hook argued the comprehensive plan was not valid because it did not include sufficient language regarding siting of a nuclear power plant. Idaho Code 67-6508(h) requires a comprehensive plan include “an analysis showing general plans for sewage, drainage, power plant sites, utility transmission corridors…”  H-Hook focused on the requirement for an “analysis” and argued that the comprehensive plan should contain a certain measure of detailed consideration of the subject. The Court, however, found that the requirement of a “general” plan diminishes the degree of required “analysis.” Reading the “plain, obvious, and rational meaning” of the terms “general” and “analysis,” the Court concluded that the comprehensive plan, as amended, met Idaho Code 67-6508(h).  It found that more detailed language would be difficult for a county to adopt and implement, due to the complicated and changing nature of energy facilities.

Illegal Spot Zoning.  H-Hook argued that the rezone from agricultural to industrial was an impermissible “type one” spot zoning.  Citing prior caselaw, the Court stated that a claim of “type one” spot zoning “is essentially an argument that the change in zoning is not in accord with the comprehensive plan.”  The Court determined that the claim of “type one” spot zoning failed because the amendment to the comprehensive plan designated the property as Industrial prior to the rezoning to Industrial.

“Type two” spot zoning in Idaho occurs when a parcel is singled out for treatment different from the uses permitted in the rest of the zoning district for the benefit of an individual property owner.  The Court disagreed.  The Board concluded that the industrial use designation “encompasses existing industrial operations, such as CAFOs and the Clay Peak Landfill” within a few hundred feet of the site in question.  The Board’s factual determination is entitled to deference when supported by substantial and competent evidence, and the Court determined that this standard was met.

Due Process Violation.  H-Hook argued that it was not given adequate time to review revisions to the development agreement; however, the County made the application available to the public in physical form and on a website well before the hearing before the PZC in December 2010. The application with revisions was made public eight days before the hearing. When the issue went before the Board, the County provided a color-coded version of the revision to the public eleven days before that meeting. These efforts gave H-Hook adequate time to review the development agreement.  No due process violation occurred.

The decision of the district court was affirmed.

Notice of intent to demolish building “reasonably calculated” to inform owners of pending action

by Andrea Vaage

Yang v. City of Wyoming
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, July 13, 2015

Ming Kuo Yang and Julie Yang owned a commercial property in Wyoming, Michigan. The Yangs previously rented the property to a series of restaurants; eventually, the property was listed for sale in late 2010. The lease on the last restaurant ended in February 2011. The property was never sold and was then neglected. The owners continued to pay property taxes. In October 2011, city officials posted an abandonment notice on the building. The notice was also mailed to the address of the abandoned building, but listed the former owner as the recipient, not the Yangs. In July 2012, the city sent a “Notice and Order to Repair or Demolish” by signature-required certified mailing to the building address. This notice also listed the former owner as the recipient. Two months later, the post office returned the mail to the city as unclaimed. The City did a title search of the building and identified the Yangs as the correct owner. The City then sent both previous notices to the Yangs’ correct address by certified mail in September 2012.

The City did not receive a response from the Yangs. It then scheduled a hearing about demolishing the property for November 1, 2012. The City sent the Yangs a hearing notice by regular mail and also sent a notice to the Yangs’ realtor. Soon thereafter, the post office returned the original certified mailing to the Yangs as unclaimed. This information was not present. The Yangs did not appear to the hearing on November 1 where the board decided to demolish the property. The property was demolished in January 2013, and a $22,500 bill was sent to the Yangs’ address for the work.

The Yangs then discovered their building was demolished and claimed the city violated their procedural due process rights by demolishing the property without adequate notice. The standard of review is whether the City’s efforts were “reasonably calculated” to inform the Yangs of the action taken on their property. The City of Wyoming attempted to contact the Yangs through posted notices, mailed notices to the Yangs, mailed notice to the realtor, and the post-hearing notice. Michigan caselaw has established that a posted notice is, by itself, an appropriate way to inform a person of the proceedings against him. Another precedent notes that notice mailed to a person’s home address generally satisfies due process requirements. The Yangs argue, however, that notice by itself is not adequate, since the hearing notice did not provide the reasons for demolishing the property and the post-hearing notice would have come too late for the Yangs to prepare to defend themselves.

The Court found that all of the information contained in all of the notices, taken in the aggregate, were sufficient to meet due process requirements. Even though the Yangs did not actually receive notice, as the certified mailing was returned unclaimed, the additional efforts made by the City were reasonable attempts to contact the Yangs. The Court found the city’s attempts at contacting the Yangs were “reasonably calculated” to give the Yangs adequate notice.

Dissent

The dissent argued that the majority misconstrued the facts of the case and the contents of the notices provided by the City. The final four attempts at contacting the Yangs were not adequate because they did not provide the reasons for the potential demolition of the building, providing “less information than the average parking ticket.” The issue wasn’t whether the forms of notice were adequate, but whether the notices actually informed the owner of the issue. In the case, the dissent argues the City failed to provide the reasons for demolition in the follow-up notices and thus violated procedural due process.

Story County District Court invalidates Ames lap dance ordinance

by Gary Taylor

Relying on Mall Real Estate v. City of Hamburg (blogged here) Story County District Court recently ruled that the Ames “lap dance ordinance” is preempted by state law.

Rebekah Beth Williams and Alijah Blue Allison v City of Ames (PDF)
Story County District Court, November 14, 2014

Dangerous Curves serves alcohol and hires women to dance while wearing bikinis or underwear.  In October 2013 an Ames police officer conducted a bar check of Dangerous Curves and observed the defendants performing lap dances while having exposed buttocks.  Ames Municipal Code Section 17.31(1) prohibits this activity.  It provides

No person appearing as an entertainer on commercial premises subject to an Iowa liquor license or beer permit, or on premises of an ‘adult entertainment business’ … shall fondle, caress or sit on the lap of any customer on said premises if the entertainer presents a performance on the premises while nude or so attired as to leave exposed the entertainer’s ….buttocks….”

The defendants were each issued a citation for violation of Section 17.31. The defendants pled not guilty and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing (1) Iowa Code 728.11 preempts Section 17.31, and (2) Section 17.31 is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The motion to dismiss was denied, and the District Associate Judge found the defendants guilty of violating Section 17.31.  The defendants appealed to the Iowa District Court for Story County.

Preemption.  Iowa Code 728.11 provides

In order to provide for the uniform application of the provisions of this chapter relating to obscene material applicable to minors within this state, it is intended that the sole and only regulation of obscene material shall be under the provisions of this chapter, and no municipality, county or other governmental unit within this state shall make any law, ordinance or regulation relating to the availability of obscene materials.  All such laws, ordinances or regulations shall be or become void, unenforceable and of no effect on January 1, 1978.  Nothing in this section shall restrict the zoning authority of cities and counties.

Iowa Code 728.5 regulates public indecent exposure, and specifically provides
1.  An owner, manager, or person who exercises direct control over a place of business required to obtain a sales tax permit shall be guilty of a serious misdemeanor under any of the following circumstances:
b.  If such person allows or permits the exposure of the genitals or buttocks or female breast of any person who acts as a waiter or waitress.
The District Court noted that in Mall Real Estate v. City of Hamburg the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that the legislature intended to include live nude dancing within the meaning of ‘obscene materials,’ and the effect of Section 728.11, therefore, was to preempt Hamburg’s nude dancing regulations.  The defendants asserted that Mall Real Estate makes it clear that Section 17.31 is preempted by the Iowa Code.  The City argued, however, that Mall Real Estate only works to apply the Iowa Code to nude dancing performances, while Section 17.31 addresses physical contact. According to the City, “once the dancer touches a customer the dancing is no longer a performance fitting within the definition of ‘obscene material.'” The City then has a governmental interest in protecting the health and safety of its citizens.
The District court sided with the defendants, noting that the performances in question in Mall Real Estate included physical contact between the dancers and customers and, therefore, “the Supreme Court has already determined that a live nude dancing performance, including physical contact with customers, is obscene material under the Iowa Code.”  As a result, Section 17.31 regulates obscene material and is expressly preempted by state law.
Vague and overbroad ordinance.  Even though the ruling for the defendants on the preemption argument had the effect of ending the controversy, the District Court proceeded to the constitutional question “in the event that this decision is appealed and the Appellate Courts of Iowa take another look at the [Mall Real Estate] case, which was decided by a split court.”
The District Court made quick work of this argument.  It first cited a 1977 Iowa Supreme Court case that stated “we find it difficult to believe [the defendant] seriously contends people of common intelligence would not understand the meaning of nudity or would not be able to determine when the ordinance was violated by exposing to public view the breasts, buttocks, or genitals.”  Because the term ‘buttocks’ is not vague, requiring the entire buttocks to be covered is not overbroad.  “It would be easily discernible to observe whether or not the buttock was covered either partially or fully.”
Based on the preemption determination, the District Court reversed the defendants’ convictions.

Improper ex parte contact only invalidated vote of commissioner making the contact

by Hannah Dankbar

Doug and Louise Hanson v Minnehaha County Commission
(South Dakota Supreme Court, October 29, 2014)

Eastern Farmers Cooperative (EFC) applied for a conditional use permit to build an agronomy facility. The facility would store, distribute and sell a variety of farm products, including anhydrous ammonia. The land the facility would sit on, and the surrounding area is zoned as A-1 Agricultural. The Minnehaha Planning Commission recommended approving the permit with ten conditions, even though local residents, including the Hansons, voiced their objections at the Planning Commission hearing because of safety and aesthetic concerns. The Hansons appealed to Minnehaha County Commission. In anticipation of the appeal one of the county commissioners (Kelly) toured an agronomy facility near Worthing, South Dakota. The facility was owned by EFC, but it is unclear if the commissioner knew this when he set up the tour. The County Commission held its hearing and approved the permit by a unanimous vote.  Commissioner Kelly disclosed at the hearing that he had touring the Worthing facility, and that he was impressed by its safety measures. The Hansons appealed to the circuit court. The court held that the Commissioner Kelly’s vote did not count due to the improper ex parte communication, but the other votes were not affected and so the approval of the permit stood. The Hansons appealed the decision.

The Hansons claim that they were denied due process in two ways: (1) that the Minnehaha County Zoning Ordinance (MCZO) does not provide adequate criteria upon which to base a decision to grant a conditional use permit, and (2) that Commissioner Kelly’s participation in the appeal to the County Commission denied them a fair and impartial hearing,

In giving counties ability to control their own zoning, counties must put in place criteria for determining when conditional use permits may be granted.  The Minnehaha County Zoning ordinance delineates three general criteria applicable to every conditional use permit application, and an additional six applicable to the types of agricultural uses at issue in this case.  The South Dakota Supreme Court noted that zoning ordinances are presumed to be constitutional, and that to overcome this presumption the challenging party must show the ordinance is arbitrary, capricious and unconstitutional. Abstract considerations are not sufficient. The South Dakota Supreme Court rejected the Hanson’s argument because they failed to show any way in which the standards in the ordinance did not pass muster.

2. The Hansons argue that the EFC should be required to “begin anew” with the permitting process because the votes of the other commissioners were influenced by the statements of Commissioner Kelly  To meet their burden, however, The Supreme Court stated that the Hanson’s must actually show that either Commissioner Kelly’s actions were sufficient to taint the entire preoceeding or that one or more of the other commissioners should be disqualified individually.  The Hanson’s failed to produce any evidence of any influence Kelly’s actions may have had on the other commissioners.  The court concluded that invalidating Kelly’s vote alone was a sufficient remedy.  With that vote invalidated, the Commission still approved the conditional use permit 3-0.

 

Unreasonable-to-repair provision in Brighton (MI) unsafe structure ordinance passes constitutional muster

by Gary Taylor

Bonner v. City of Brighton
(Michigan Supreme Court, April 24, 2014)

Under the City of Brighton, Michigan’s code of ordinances, if a structure is determined to be unsafe and the cost of repairs would exceed 100 percent of the true cash value of the structure when it was deemed unsafe, then the repairs are presumed unreasonable, the structure is presumed to be a public nuisance, and the city may order demolition of the structure without providing the owner an option to repair it.  The unreasonable-to-repair presumption can be overcome by presenting a viable repair plan, evidence from the landowner’s own experts that the repair costs would not exceed 100 percent of the property value, or evidence that the structure has some sort of cultural, historical, familial, or artistic value.

The City ordered Leon and Marilyn Bonner to demolish three unoccupied residential structures on their property after determining that repairs would exceed 100 percent of the true cash value of each of the structures (thereby providing the Bonner’s no option to repair).  The Bonners sued the City, and the circuit court and Michigan Court of Appeals determined that the above-discussed provisions of the Brighton Code of Ordinances violated property owners’ substantive and procedural due process rights.  The City appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court determined that the Court of Appeals erred by failing to separately analyze the Bonners’ substantive and procedural due process claims. The substantive component of due process protects against the arbitrary exercise of governmental power, whereas the procedural component ensures constitutionally sufficient procedures for the protection of life, liberty, and property interests.

Substantive Due Process.  Because property owners do not have a fundamental right to repair a structure deemed unsafe by a municipality before that structure can be demolished, the government’s interference with that right need only be reasonably related to a legitimate governmental interest. The Brighton ordinance did not constitute an unconstitutional deprivation of substantive due process because the ordinance’s unreasonable-to-repair presumption was reasonably related to the city’s legitimate interest in promoting the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. Nuisance abatement is a legitimate exercise of police power, and demolition is a permissible method of achieving that end. The ordinance was not an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction on a property owner’s use of his or her property because the ordinances provided for circumstances under which the unreasonable-to-repair presumption could be overcome and repairs permitted.

Procedural Due Process.  The Supreme Court further determined that the  demolition procedures provided property owners with procedural due process by providing the right to appeal an adverse decision to the city council, as well as the right to subsequent judicial review. The City is not required to afford a property owner an option to repair as a matter of right before an unsafe structure could be demolished, nor is the City required to provide for a reasonable opportunity to repair the unsafe structure in order for the ordinance to pass constitutional muster.

Limiting percentage of rental units allowed per block was valid exercise of police power

by Rachel Greifenkamp and Gary Taylor

Dean v. City of Winona

(Minnesota Court of Appeals, February 24, 2014)

In the City of Winona, MN, there exists an ordinance that limits, in certain districts of the city, the number of lots on a block that are eligible to obtain certification as a rental property. Based on the findings from the city’s planning commission and a Parking Advisory Task Force that was formed to consider the issues of increased parking demands, the City found that rental-housing units comprised about 39% of the City’s total housing units, but that these rental properties comprised 52% of the complaints received by the Community Development Department. Based on data from 2004, the planning commission found that 95 of the 99 calls for police service based on noise and party-related complaints involved rental properties. They also found that 52% of the zoning violations that resulted in written violations were for rental properties. In 2005, the idea of restricting the number of rental properties per block was suggested. The Parking Advisory Task Force suggested that the number of rental units be restricted to 30% of the total properties on any given block. The task force adopted a motion to forward a “30% rule” to the planning commission for its consideration. The planning commission voted to recommend the 30% rule to city council, and the council subsequently passed the 30% rule.  The three appellants challenging the 30% rule in this case were the owners of three houses that were purchased after the 30% rule was adopted. In January of 2013 the district court denied the appellants’ motion that the 30% rule was an invalid exercise of the City’s broad police power, and that it violated their Equal Protection, Substantive Due Process, and Procedural Due Process rights under the Minnesota Constitution, and granted summary judgment to the city. The appellants then took their case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Police Powers. The Court of Appeals determined that the 30% rule was, in fact, an authorized exercise of police power. The term “police power” means simply the power to impose such restrictions upon private rights as are practically necessary for the general welfare of all. “The development of the law relating to the proper exercise of the police power of the state clearly demonstrates that it is very broad and comprehensive, and is exercised to promote the general welfare of the state….[T]he public has a sufficient interest in rental housing to justify a municipality’s use of police power as a means of regulating such housing.”

Equal Protection. In order for an equal protection challenge to be valid the appellant must show that “similarly situated persons have been treated differently.” Similarly situated means that the two groups in question are alike in all relevant respects. The Court concluded that the 30% rule is not invalid on its face:

The ordinance is facially neutral and applies equally to all property owners in the regulated districts. The ordinance sets a 30% cap, but it does not define or predetermine which lots will be certified. That determination is made based on the changing facts and circumstances on each block, and not based on the ordinance or the characteristics of lot owners. The fact that the number of lots that may be certified might be less than the number of property owners who desire certification is not a class-based distinction between two groups of property owners.

The Court also concluded that the 30% rule was not discriminatory in the manner it was being applied by the city.  The Appellant did not show that the city “has done anything other than apply the mathematical formula on a first-come, first-served basis. Appellants’ real complaint is about the effect of an otherwise neutral ordinance on their particular circumstances, which does not give rise to an equal protection claim.”

Substantive and Procedural Due Process.  The substantive due process and procedural due process claims were also considered invalid. The appellants argued the the 30% rule violated their right to rent their property, but such a right is not a “fundamental right” protected by the Minnesota Constitution.  Unless a fundamental right is at stake, substantive due process requires only that the statute not be arbitrary or capricious.  The Court concluded that the 30% rule was adopted after a long, deliberate information-gathering process that considered public input, data, and expert review, and was thus not arbitrary or capricious.

As for procedural due process, the appellant’s argued that the 30% rule improperly delegates the power of deciding whether or not they may receive a license to their neighbors, but the Court reasoned otherwise because the “neighbors” (owners of certified rental properties) do not determine which other lots may be certified. “The certified-property owners’ views regarding whether a particular lot should be certified as a rental property are irrelevant; they can neither grant certification by consenting to it nor prevent certification by denying consent.”

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s award of summary judgment in favor of the city because the adoption of the ordinance was an authorized exercise of its police power and because the appellants did not met the burden to show that the ordinance is unconstitutional.

No constitutional right to operate a mobile vending cart

by Gary Taylor

Anthony Browne v. City of Iowa City
(Iowa Court of Appeals, February 19, 2014)

The city of Iowa City denied Anthony Browne’s application for a mobile vending cart permit.  He was one of eight applicants vying for six available permits to operate downtown.  The city created a matrix to score the applications.  One of the criterion in the matrix was past satisfactory experience working with Iowa City.  Because Browne had no prior experience with the city he received a low score on that criterion.  He ultimately finished seventh out of the eight applicants.  Browne requested and was granted a licensing hearing before the city council.  In the process he was provided with all emails and other communications concerning the permitting process.  The city council affirmed the denial.

Browne argued that the city violated his due process rights by, among other things, including what he referred to as a “seniority criterion” into the matrix and not giving him credit for successful experience working in other communities.  The district court ruled in favor of the city and the Court of Appeals affirmed.  Reviewing multiple federal and state cases, the court found that Browne has no constitutionally protected liberty or property interest in his unilateral expectation to receive a mobile vending permit.

Any right plaintiff has to earn a living through a food cart, like other intangible employment rights, arises from state law and does not spring from the fundamental guarantees of the Constitution. Municipalities in the United States have a history of stringently regulating or even prohibiting food cart vendors; thus, the right to freely operate a food cart is not “deeply rooted” in our Nation’s history and traditions. Nor is the right to freely operate a food cart implicit in our concept of ordered liberty. Therefore, the court finds that plaintiff fails to allege a property right that is protected by the Constitution and does not state a substantive due process cause of action as a matter of law.

The court went further to state that even if he had such an interest, he was afforded appropriate process, including notice, full disclosure, of all city communications regarding the permitting process, and the opportunity to be heard.

Investigations by zoning board member outside the hearing process did not give rise to due process violation

by Kaitlin Heinen and Gary Taylor

Timothy Hutchinson v. Wayne Township Board of Zoning Appeals
(Ohio Court of Appeals, 12th Appellate District, September 10, 2012)

Tim Hutchinson filed an application for a conditional use permit from Wayne Township Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to operate a Halloween-themed nature walk on part of Jana Hutchinson’s farm, which was zoned A-1, agricultural district. The BZA held a hearing for Tim Hutchinson’s application in July of 2008. At this hearing, it was found that the nature walk would be open 6-8 weekends per year during the Halloween season from 5pm-midnight. Traffic would come from Wayne-Madison Road using two unpaved roads, while parking would be provided in nearby open fields. The BZA  found that Wayne-Madison Road is a narrow, two-lane, dead-end road with no lighting and with narrow berms that steeply slope into drainage ditches, although Hutchinson presented expert testimony from a traffic engineer that Wayne-Madison Road would be able to handle the additional traffic. The BZA also heard complaints from residents in the area, which addressed safety issues arising from the use of Wayne-Madison Road by drivers who are inexperienced with gravel roads as well as the peace and the security of the residents in area that may be affected by the increased traffic. The BZA adjourned the hearing in progress, expressing concern that Tim Hutchinson was not a proper applicant since he was only a tenant on the property and not the landowner. Jana Hutchinson was then joined on the application for a conditional use permit, and when the hearing resumed she provided additional information to BZA about security, traffic, road maintenance, and insurance for the nature walk.

In December of 2008, the hearing was reconvened. Tim Hutchinson testified that he estimated 500 cars would be expected at the nature walk each evening. However, BZA member Carleen Yeager stated that she had researched attendance at other Halloween-themed events and, to the contrary, 500 cars would be a “light night” and that nearly 1500 cars would be expected on a “good night.” Tim Hutchinson countered that the nature walk was new and that he was “starting off small.” At the end of the hearing, BZA member Jerry Gerber moved to deny the Hutchinsons’ application.  The vote was unanimous against the application. The Hutchinsons appealed the BZA’s oral denial of the application to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas and the case was remanded to the BZA for the issuance of a written decision.

In March of 2010, the BZA issued its written decision, which found that the Hutchinsons’ nature walk would be inconsistent and incompatible with the current uses of the surrounding area and would adversely affect the general welfare of neighboring residents in the area. The Hutchinsons’ appealed. In January of 2012, the common pleas court issued its decision that affirmed the BZA’s denial of the Hutchinsons’ application for a conditional use permit.

The issue before the Ohio Court of Appeals in this decision then is that “the common pleas court erred to the prejudice of the [appellants] by affirming the BZA’s decision.” The Hutchinsons claimed that the trial court erred in its affirmation of the BZA’s decision, even though the appellants had satisfied all requirements of the zoning resolution, and that the trial court erred in finding that their due process rights were not violated by BZA member Yeager’s outside investigation.

In regards to the Hutchinsons’ first claim, the township’s zoning code requires that conditional uses must meet several criteria, such as not adversely affecting the health, safety, comfort and general welfare of the surrounding area by threats of traffic hazards, noise disturbances, night lighting, fire hazards, etc. (Section 25.053). However, citing prior case law the court stated that satisfaction of these requirements does not make approval automatic, and that the township zoning code also requires the BZA to “give due regard to the nature and condition of all adjacent uses and structures” surrounding the proposed conditional use. After reviewing the record, the court found that the Hutchinsons did not satisfy all the requirements in the code. Despite the Hutchinsons’ presentation of an expert witness, the BZA had reason to find that the increased traffic would be incompatible with the surrounding area. Thus the trial court did not err in their decision to affirm the BZA’s denial on this count.

As for the due process violation alleged, “[t]he essence of due process dictates, at the very least, that an individual have an opportunity to be heard and to defend, enforce and protect his rights before an administrative body in an orderly proceeding.” Here, Yeager admitted to making “some calls” inquiring into the reasonable number of cars to be expected for a Halloween-themed event. The Hutchinsons argued that her statement negatively affected their ability to have a fair hearing, since they were not able to cross-examine Yeager’s informants as well as Yeager herself, at the risk of losing her vote. Again citing previous caselaw, the court stated that “[t]he combination of investigative, executive and adjudicative functions does not necessarily create a risk of bias or unfairness in an administrative adjudication.” The court noted that the BZA’s decision stated, in part, that it was denying appellants’ application because the Nature Walk “would significantly increase traffic flow, according to applicant’s testimony, by hundreds of cars each evening.” From this statement, according to the court, “it is clear that the BZA did not rely on Yeager’s view that as many as 1,500 cars would be traveling Wayne-Madison Road, but only that 500 cars would be on the road, as indicated by Tim Hutchinson.”

Further, the court noted that the BZA unanimously denied appellants’ application. Thus, even if Yeager’s statements demonstrated her own bias and prejudice toward the Nature Walk, the exclusion of her vote would not have altered the result.   No due process rights were violated.

The judgment of the trial court was affirmed, maintaining the denial of the Hutchinsons’ application for a conditional use permit to operate a Halloween-themed nature walk.

Archives

Categories