Cert Granted in North Oaks v. Sarpal

Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of North Oaks v. Sarpal.  To refresh, this case started as North Oaks’ attempt to make a homeowner move a shed to comply with setbacks.  The trial court and the Court of Appeals blocked the City’s action, concluding that because the City (unwittingly) gave Sarpal a flawed property survey map and assured him it was correct, the City was barred from enforcing the correct setbacks.

In a previous post, I hoped that review would be granted, since this Court of Appeals opinion is way out of step with past precedent and current practice.  The doctrine at stake here is “equitable estoppel” – when does “fairness” require that an owner get a pass on a zoning violation?  Since 1980, it’s required “wrongful conduct” on the part of the government.  Subsequent interpretation, confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2006, pegged that phrase to mean “malfeasance,” i.e. somebody attempting to harm the owner.  In general, this is good policy; you shouldn’t get a variance from existing law through the mere bumbling of public officials.  This is especially true in the wake of Krummenacher A City planner has no power to change the zoning code intentionally, and the City Council can’t grant a variance short of a taking, so why should we allow these things to happen because the maps on file at the City are flawed, but nobody’s caught it yet?  If the city staff has maliciously set you up, then that’s different.  If you can prove that, you’ll possibly get a break (there are three other factors to meet first).

The current result in Sarpal eliminates “malfeasance,” and drops the bar down to “mistake.”  Or maybe, “confident mistake” since it’s the insistence of North Oaks planners that the survey map was correct that really seems to get the Courts’ attention (the trial court applied estoppel, the Court of Appeals decided that wasn’t erroneous or an abuse of discretion).  Now we wait to see if the Supreme Court remains consistent with its 2006 holding and reverses, or if another portion of land-use law gets substantially rewritten by the Court.

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Court of Appeals 08.24.10

A couple of cases of interest on the unpublished list today:

Dayspring Development, LLC v.  Little Canada:  A case on its third trip to the Court; this time, the Court holds that the LLC lacks standing to seek compensation for a regulatory taking that occurred between 2003 and 2005.  At the time of the taking, the principal officer of the LLC owned the property individually, only quitclaiming the property to the LLC after the City relented and granted a final plat and development agreement.  The Court determines that the interest in takings compensation is separate from the general ownership interest, and the transfer of property to the LLC failed to convey the right to takings compensation.  This is not the usual outcome for a regulatory takings case, but the Court felt that because the takings period was finite (ending with the plat approval), the right to compensation should be treated as a standard eminent-domain claim, accruing to the owner at the time of the taking, unless the interest is specifically conveyed.  The logic is simple enough, but don’t be surprised if the Supreme Court picks it up to chew over the need for a separate transfer of the right to compensation.

Otsego v. New River Hospital District:  What drives a judge to quote classic-rock standards in an opinion?  Read Judge Johnson’s concurrence in this case and decide for yourself.  I can’t decide whether it’s a stellar display of legal principle applying over personal opinion, or just a judge throwing a tantrum after being talked out of legislating from the bench.  The opinion certainly makes clear that launching an appeal when your only argument is “arbitrary and capricious” is normally a fool’s errand.  Where Judge Johnson loses me is that it’s not because of a weak legal standard or drafting problem in the Legislature; it’s the proper separation of powers in government that keeps the courts from playing Monday-morning quarterback with executive and legislative decisions.  In short, it’s a feature, not a bug.  This opinion should immediately go into the curriculum of high-school civics classes throughout the state.

Harmsen v. Minneapolis: Notable for the return of a normal application of the Ridgewood estoppel analysis.  “Normal,” in the sense that affirmative misconduct – malfeasance – is required to prevent the enforcement of otherwise valid law.   Last month, in North Oaks v. Sarpal, a different three-judge panel seemed to throw that requirement overboard when it held that “erroneous government advice” was enough to satisfy the test (or at least was enough to back up a trial court judge who thought so).  It’s not at all clear how “erroneous advice” differs from any other mistake a planning department employee might make, but that’s now the central holding of a published Court of Appeals opinion.  The facts in Harmsen don’t set up a great conflict between the opinions, but it shows that the Sarpal decision needs to be harmonized, somehow, with the Ridgewood-KMart line of cases on wrongful conduct.  If “malfeasance” is not the standard, then the standard effectively becomes “Does the judge blame the city or the owner for the problem?” – especially if the decision is only reviewed for abuse of discretion.

Court of Appeals 04.14.09

The Court published a decision reversing an eminent domain order giving the City of Jordan some church-owned land for sidewalk and streetlight improvements.  The Court dusted off some century-old precedent to establish that sidewalks and traffic controls are “roads and streets” for the purposes of applying Minn. Stat. 315.42, an 1881 statute preventing the laying of roads and streets through church property without the consent of the religious corporation.  There is nothing fancy about this opinion – once “roads and streets” is defined, the application is straightforward.  The age of the precedents used by the Court here assure that just about any road-related improvement on church property can only be accomplished through negotiated approval.

The Court also released an unpublished opinion that adds to the canon of Cities Are Not Responsible For Their Mistakes.  The district court in Sibley County attempted to hold Gaylord responsible for confused and just plain incorrect advice concerning PUD and subdivision approval, granting the developer a writ of mandamus to approve a subdivision plat largely on a theory of estoppel.  The Court of Appeals reversed, taking less than three sentences to establish that estoppel is not a proper basis for mandamus.  It spent more time on whether a clear duty exists to approve a non-compliant plat (it doesn’t) and whether the developer has other remedies at law following an adverse zoning decision (it does).   In all of these cases, the developer/landowner/applicant is going to be charged with knowing the applicable laws and codes, regardless of what may be represented by a city or town staff.