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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Land Use on Tonight's Agenda

Two items on tonight's agenda will focus the council's attention on the topic of land use: Item K2, Comprehensive Plan Update, and item L4, Richie Place Subdivision Proposal on Labore Road (which involves a proposed change to the Comprehensive Land Use Plan).

In preparation for these items, I've been doing some reading this past weekend -- specifically, two Minnesota Supreme Court cases that shed light on council power and its limits when it comes to land use decisions.

In Mendota Golf, LLP, v. City of Mendota Heights (2006), the Supreme Court looked at a case where there was a conflict between the zoning and the land use plan for a golf course whose owner wanted to make it a residential development. The zoning was appropriate for this development, but the city did not want to amend its comp plan. The city was ordered to reconcile the conflict between the comp plan and the zoning -- but (unlike the original lower court ruling) the Supreme Court made it clear that how to reconcile the conflict was up to the city to decide.

Mendota Golf also made it clear that how the conflict was resolved could have further implications: "Our decision also does not foreclose Mendota Golf from asserting a regulatory takings claim if the parties cannot resolve their dispute," wrote the court.

So the upshot of this case is that a city must reconcile conflicts between zoning and the Comp Plan (such as the conflict we face on Richie Place, or the conflict in South Maplewood between the current zoning and comp plan), but courts give a city broad legislative authority to decide how to reconcile the conflict (e.g., change zoning to match the Comp Plan; change the Comp Plan to match the zoning; or change both to something else entirely). However, the court also opened the door to the possibility that some changes could result in a regulatory taking, that is, a situation where the city could be forced to compensate the landowners for regulating away the use of their land.

Last year some of these issues arose again in the case of Wensmann Realty v. Eagan (2007). This case focused on that open door to a regulatory takings claims, in a case where the city wanted to maintain an Open Space land use designation on private land to prevent a residential development. The court concluded that "a city’s denial of an application to amend its comprehensive plan to permit residential development of golf course property constitutes a regulatory taking under the Minnesota Constitution if the denial leaves no reasonable use of the property."

Considering the balance of factors to determine whether or not there is a regulatory taking, the court wrote, "The citizens of Eagan clearly value the open space that the golf course provides, but if the property owner is forced to leave the property undeveloped for the benefit of neighboring landowners without an opportunity to pursue a reasonable use of the property, the city is, in essence, asking the property owner to carry a burden that in all fairness should be borne by the entire community."

In the Wensmann case, the justices ultimately felt that the court record was insufficent to determine if in fact a taking had occurred, and so remanded the case to district court. Eagan and Wensmann subsequently worked out a compromise, which involved a referendum this fall on whether or not the city would buy the land in order to keep it as public open space.

In conclusion, I see two key guidelines when the council is considering changes to our comprehensive land use plan.

  1. If there is a conflict between the comp plan and the zoning, we are obliged to reconcile that conflict. This is required by the Metropolitan Land Planning Act (Minnesota Statutes 473.865). We have legislative authority to decide how to reconcile the conflict, as long as our decision has a rational basis.
  2. To avoid regulatory takings claims from landowners whose land use plan designation is changes, we need to make certain that the designation allows a reasonable use of the property. Again, a city has fairly wide latitude, since as the court writes in Wensmann, "A taking does not result simply because the property owner has been deprived of the most profitable use of the property."

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