Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 19, 2012

Ninth Circuit finds City’s Ordinances Protecting Mobile Home Parks do not Violate Federal or Washington State Constitutions

The City of Tumwater, Washington enacted two ordinances, one affecting the City Code and the other the Comprehensive Plan, creating a manufactured home district.  The City created this district, which covered six of the ten mobile home parks in the City, to preserve the existence of mobile home parks.  The City’s mobile home parks challenged these ordinances.  The United States District Court, Western District of Washington granted summary judgment in favor of the City.  The mobile home park owners appealed, claiming federal and state takings clause violations and a state substantive due process violation.  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Mobile home parks are generally owned in their entirety by a common owner.  In order to live in the park, residents rent a plot, purchase a mobile home, and connect it to the rented lot.  Mobile homes, however, are not mobile.  Once they arrive on the lot, the homes usually lose their wheels, are anchored to the ground, connected to utilities, and were the homes are double or triple wide, each trailer is connected to the other.  These facts make it incredibly difficult and costly to move the mobile homes once they are connected to the lot.

The City of Tumwater enacted these ordinances in response to the practice of mobile home park owners to close the parks and sell the land for residential development when the time is ripe for conversion.  Since mobile home park residents are traditionally in the less prosperous economic classes, and it is prohibitively expensive to relocate a connected mobile home, when a mobile home park owner decides to convert, many of the residents lose their homes.  The Tumwater ordinances protected mobile home park renters, as it essentially precluded residential development and reserved the land for mobile home parks only.

On appeal, the plaintiff mobile home park owners first challenged the constitutionality of the ordinances under the federal Takings Clause.  Specifically, plaintiffs’ alleged the ordinances go “too far,” and thus constitute a regulatory taking.  The court provided that in determining whether there was a violation, the courts must look to the factors established by the Supreme Court in the case of Penn Central Transportation v. City of New York.  In making a Penn Central analysis, the court must look to the regulation’s economic impact on the land owner, the regulation’s interference with investment backed expectations, and the character of the governmental action.

The Ninth Circuit found the plaintiffs’ claim did not satisfy the Penn Central standard.  Plaintiffs could not meet the economic impact factor, as they could only show that one of the six parks experienced an economic impact, and the impact was less than a 15% diminution in value.  In looking to the second factor, the court found that any interference with the plaintiffs’ investment backed expectations was not sufficient to find a constitutional violation.  Under this factor, courts will protect the land owner’s “primary expectation,” but will not safeguard every available property use permitted at the time of purchase.  The court found the plaintiffs did not satisfy this factor because the plaintiffs’ intention to use the property for development in the future was not their “primary expectation” – there was only a “speculative probability” of the future conversion.  The court did, however, find the third factor, character of governmental action, did favor the plaintiffs’ claim, as the ordinance essentially made the plaintiffs bear the burden of providing the benefit of mobile, and thus affordable, housing.  In conclusion, the court found the three factors weighed in favor of no federal Takings Clause violation, and affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Next, the Ninth Circuit addressed the plaintiffs’ state law takings claim, which had two prongs.  First, relying on Washington case law, the plaintiffs alleged the ordinances deprived the owners of a property right, claiming they can no longer freely dispose of their land as the ordinance effectively gave control to the tenants.  The court found for the City on this claim, as the plaintiffs can freely dispose of their land, and the ordinances are only a “use” restriction, which is the essence of valid zoning.  The court stated that the “free use of property” is not a fundamental attribute of property ownership, and a restriction thereof will not result in a takings claim.  Next, the plaintiffs’ claimed a takings violation occurred due to the ordinances’ transfer of property rights to the tenants.  The court questioned the viability of such a claim, but nonetheless found no violation as no rights were in fact transferred to the tenants.

Lastly, the plaintiffs alleged the ordinances violated the Substantive Due Process Clause of the Washington State Constitution.  In undertaking a substantive due process analysis, the court provided that it needs to consider “(1) whether the regulation is aimed at achieving a legitimate public purpose; (2) whether it uses means that are reasonably necessary to achieve that purpose; and (3) whether it is unduly oppressive on the land owner.”  First, the court found the ordinances’ purpose to maintain mobile home housing – high density single family housing – was a legitimate public purpose.  The court stated that the second and third factors are necessarily tied together, as the reasonableness of the restriction is related to whether it is unduly oppressive.  The court found the ordinances to be reasonably necessary and the impact not unduly oppressive on the plaintiffs, as the present day impact on the plaintiffs is “little to none,” and the plaintiffs are permitted to use their property as they currently are.  Thus, the Ninth Circuit found no substantive due process violation and affirmed the order of the trial court.

Tied to their substantive due process claims, plaintiffs also alleged that the ordinances were in effect illegal spot zoning.  First off, the court questioned whether a spot zoning claim could be alleged in the context of a facial challenge.  Not deciding on that issue, the court found the plaintiffs failed to allege a valid spot zoning violation, as the ordinances bore “a substantial relationship to the general welfare of the community.”

Laurel Park Community v. City of Tumwater, No. 11-35466 (9th Cir., Oct. 29, 2012).

The opinion can be accessed here.

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