Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 29, 2019

IA Appeals Court Finds Substantial Evidence Supported the Council’s Denial of Landowners’ Rezoning Application

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

The 42.01 acres of land at issue in this case were annexed by the City of Iowa City in 1994 as part of the 422-acre tract of land owned by Sycamore Farms Company. Before the annexation, Iowa City and Sycamore Farms entered into a Conditional Zoning Agreement (“CZA”), which imposed several conditions on the land. Additionally, Sycamore Farms agreed “the development and use of the subject property would conform to” additional conditions, including taking steps to protect certain natural features of the land, creating a conservation easement with part of the land, giving the City fifteen acres to create a public school, and more. In this case, the current owners of the land, Sycamore, L.L.C. and Lake Calvin Properties, L.L.C. appealed the district court’s ruling annulling their writ of certiorari that challenged the City Council of Iowa City’s denial of their application to rezone the 42.01 acres of property.

The landowners argued on appeal that the district court erred in finding the City Council’s denial of the landowners’ application for rezoning was not illegal, asserting the Council was bound by the CZA to rezone the property once certain conditions of the CZA were met. The court found that any agreement binding a future council to rezone land a specific way would be void. Specifically, the court held “a municipal corporation may, by contract, curtail its right to exercise functions of a business or proprietary nature, but, in the absence of express authority from the legislature, such a corporation cannot surrender away its governmental functions and powers, and any attempt to barter or surrender them is invalid.”

The landowners also contended that the district court erred in finding substantial evidence supported the Council’s decision to deny their application to rezone. The record reflected that the density level requested by the landowners with the RM-20 zoning designation was inconsistent with both the 2015 South District Plan and the 2030 Comprehensive Plan. Additionally, concerns were expressed that the infrastructure was not yet ready for such a large population and that expending City dollars to ready the infrastructure might be ill-advised since the development was “leap frogging” over undeveloped land. Specifically, the disconnectedness of the development would pose a problem for the potential lower-income tenants because the closest bus stop was more than one mile away and there were no grocery stores in close proximity. The court found that these concerns were consistent with the zoning code, which provided that the RM-20 zone, “is particularly well suited to locations adjacent to commercial areas and in areas with good access to all city services and facilities.” Since the Council did not incorrectly apply the law and substantial evidence supports its decision to deny the landowners’ application for rezoning, the court affirmed the district court’s annulling of the landowners’ writ of certiorari.

Sycamore, LLC v City Council of Iowa City, 2019 WL 3716364 (IA App. 8/7/2019)

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