Interim Ordinance Escape Hatch Affirmed

Today, the Supreme Court affirms the prior decisions in Pawn America v. St. Louis Park, confirming that there still is a “right way” to dodge a controversial project.  A little over a year ago, the Court of Appeals released its opinion in this case on the same day it released Pigs R Us LLC v Compton Township.  I thought the cases paralleled each other: landowner applies for permit, intially gets permit, citizens raise Cain, city/town backtracks and looks for a way out.  Compton Township chose to hastily rewrite its ordinance to rule out swine facilities; St. Louis Park voted to commission a zoning study and adopt an interim ordinance blocking pawnshops.  Both governments were clearly taking evasive action to avoid granting a permit to an unpopular use, but St. Louis Park prevailed in court while Compton Township has been forced to grant the permit and likely pay damages.  When the Supreme Court granted cert to Pawn America last October, it raised concern that the interim-ordinance dodge would disappear.

Not to worry.  The central question posed by Pawn America was whether the Court would grab hold of the implied “good faith” requirement that’s always been read into the interim ordinance statute (courtesy of a Supreme Court decision on moratoria issued the same day the statute was adopted) to dig into the City’s “real” reason for throwing up an interim ordinance, or whether mechanical compliance with the statute will do.  Justice Barry Anderson removes the doubt (and the need to overrule any past cases) in a footnote:

We view good faith, in this context, as non-arbitrary and non-capricious actions of municipalities, and not as a heightened standard of behavior that city officials must meet in order to exercise authority under Minn. Stat. § 462.355, subd. 4(a).

So there you go.  An interim ordinance is just like any other ordinance – it will be reviewed for “whether the ordinance is reasonably related to the planning process and the public health, safety, and welfare, or whether it is unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious.”  In other words, a very low bar.

All that’s left is whether the city “is conducting studies or has authorized a study to be conducted,” the prerequisite to adopting an interim ordinance.  St. Louis Park cut this as close as you can, putting the study authorization and the interim ordinance into the very same resolution for simultaneous adoption.  Justice Anderson (writing for a unanimous Court, by the way) shrugs and holds simultaneous adoption is OK.  I’m sure it helped that St. Louis Park quickly followed up and conducted the study, adopting new rules within 4 months, but this isn’t a part of the new rule.  Commission a planning or zoning study, and you’re clear to adopt an interim ordinance relating to the subject(s) of study – even in the same motion with the study authorization.  As long as there’s a rational basis for the study, the other contextual details – such as the application that brought the matter to the City’s attention – won’t matter.

Let’s note that the Court is on a tear lately with land use decisions that negate long-standing practices in the field, practices often backed by a fair amount of either pre-statute precedent (like this one) or Court of Appeals precedent.  DNR authority in shoreland areas, variances in general, 15.99 practice, and now interim ordinances.

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