by Gary Taylor
Phillip Gray, et al. v. City of Indianola
(Iowa Supreme Court, May 6, 2011)
Plaintiffs own residential acreages along West Euclid Avenue in the city of Indianola. West Euclid was a gravel road until the school board decided to build an elementary school along the avenue and the city council decided to pave it. The paving project included expanding and paving the avenue, reconfiguring ditches, and installing sidewalks on both sides. The city council’s decision to pave was based on the location of the school, and none of the plaintiffs had requested that the road be paved.
The city levied a total of $360,448.81 in special assessments for the pavement of the road and $41,080.32 for the installation of the sidewalk. The assessment district included all the properties abutting West Euclid and back to a depth of 300 feet. Plaintiffs’ individual assessments ranged from $11,697 to nearly $21,000.
Iowa Code 384.61 provides that “the total cost of a public improvement, except for paving that portion of a street lying between railroad tracks and one foot outside the tracks, or which is to be otherwise paid, must be assessed against all lots in the assessment district in accordance with the special benefits conferred upon the property, and not in excess of such benefits.” [emphasis added].
Plaintiffs sued the city of Indianola, contending the assessment was excessive and that they received little, if any, special benefit from paving the road. They cited factors such as the rural atmosphere of the neighborhood of which the gravel road was a feature, increased traffic prompted by the pavement of the road, and the location of the school in the neighborhood. They opined that the expected benefits of paving a gravel road, such as reduced noise and dust, were offset by the detriment resulting from the increased traffic due to the school. The owners also testified they did not believe the sidewalk benefitted their properties at all but actually constituted a detriment because they would now be required to maintain the sidewalks, and would be exposed to potential liability from for personal injuries to pedestrians.
The owners presented the expert testimony of a former city engineer that the method utilized by the city to spread the cost of the paving project – known as the “Flint formula” which is a purely mathematical formula based on frontage feet and distance from the improvements – resulted in excessive assessments because it failed to take into account unique features of each parcel, and whether special benefits were actually conferred by the project.
The city presented evidence that the assessments were not based entirely on the Flint formula. The city engineer testified to deductions made for the road and sidewalk sections at intersections, the width of the street (assessments were made based on a hypothetical 25’ street instead of the actual 31’ width) and the overall thickness of the pavement, and the city manager explained deductions made at the direction of the city council including reductions to the assessment of larger lots.
The district court found the assessments to be in excess of special benefits conferred, ordered all road assessments to be reduced to an amount not exceeding $8,453.78, and ordered all sidewalk assessments to be reduced by half. The city appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court observed that:
Few property owners are happy about sharing through special assessments the cost of public improvements, particularly ones that they did not ask for. It is natural for the average property owner to resent the burden thus laid upon him, and he easily persuades himself that the thing for which he is asked to pay is a detriment, rather than a benefit, to his land, and ordinarily it is not difficult for him to find plenty of sympathizing neighbors who will unite in supporting his contention.
The court determined that the city’s use of the Flint formula for assessing roadway improvements was not inappropriate because “at several points in the assessment process the city reduced the assessment …to balance the general benefits conferred upon the public with the special benefits conferred upon the abutting properties.” The court noted that the city council’s adjustments were consistent with previous caselaw citing several factors relevant to determining special benefits, including “the present and future use of the abutting property, the increase in the market value occasioned by the improvement, the size and shape of the property, the proximity of the property to the improvement, the amount of property fronting the improvement, the needs of the property owners served by the improvement, and the primary purpose behind the improvement.” The court further found the benefits to having a gravel road paved were numerous, “including fugitive dust control, reduced roadway noise, lower vehicle maintenance costs, aesthetic enhancements, improved drainage, decreased potential for trash accumulation due to the elimination of ditches, increased safety, easier maintenance of the property abutting the road, and decreased response time for emergency services…” and that many of plaintiffs’ complaints were in fact a result of locating the school nearby and not paving the road. Conceding that determining special benefits “cannot be done with mathematical precision” the court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to overcome the presumption that the assessments were correct.
The court affirmed the district court’s reduction of the sidewalk assessment, finding that the record established that the public benefit derived from the sidewalk improvements – including student and general pedestrian safety – was significant.