Bormann v. Board of Supervisors in and for Kossuth County
Cite as: 584 N.W.2d 309


CECELIA McGUIRE, Husband and Wife, Appellants,
LAUREL FANTZ, JAMES BLACK, and DONALD McGREGOR, In Their Capacities as Members of the
Board of Supervisors, Appellees,


No. 192 / 96-2276

September 23, 1998, Filed

Certiorari Denied February 22, 1999


Michael E. Gabor of Buchanan, Buchanan, Bibler, Buchanan & Handsaker, Algona, for appellants.

David C. Skilling, County Attorney, for appellees.

Eldon L. McAfee of Beving, Swanson & Forrest, Des Moines, for intervenor-appellees.

Christina L. Gault of Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, West Des Moines, for amicus curiae.

OPINION: Considered en banc. LAVORATO, Justice.

In this appeal we are asked to decide whether a statutory immunity from nuisance suits results in a taking of private property for public use without just compensation in violation of federal and Iowa constitutional provisions. We think it does. We therefore reverse a district court ruling holding otherwise and remand. In doing so, we need not reach a second constitutional challenge.

I. Facts and Proceedings.

The facts are not in dispute. In September 1994, Gerald and Joan Girres applied to the Kossuth County Board of Supervisors for establishment of an "agricultural area" that would include land they owned as well as property owned by Mike Girres, Norma Jean Thul, Gerald Thilges, Shirley Thilges, Thelma Thilges, Edwin Thilges, Ralph Reding, Loretta Reding, Bernard Thilges, Jacob Thilges, John Goecke, and Patricia Goecke (applicants). See Iowa Code s. 352.6 (1993). The real property involved consisted of 960 acres. On November 10, 1994, the Board denied the application, making the following findings and conclusions:

a. The Board finds that the policy in favor of agricultural land preservation is not furthered by an Agricultural Area designation in this case as there are no present or foreseeable nonagricultural development pressures in the area for which the designation is requested.

b. The Board also finds that the Agricultural Area designation and the nuisance protections provided therein will have a direct and permanent impact on the existing and long-held private property rights of the adjacent property owners.

c. Thus, the Board concludes that the policy in favor of agricultural land preservation as set forth in Iowa Code chapter 352 is outweighed by the policy in favor of the preservation of private property rights.

d. Accordingly, the Board finds that the adoption of the Agricultural Area designation in this case is inconsistent with the purposes of Iowa Code chapter 352.

Two months later, in January 1995, the applicants tried again with more success. The Board approved the agricultural area designation by a 3-2 vote -- one of which was based on the "flip [of] a nickel." In granting the designation, the Board this time found that the application to create the agricultural area designation "complies with Iowa Code section 352.6 and that the adoption of the proposed agricultural area is consistent with the purposes of Chapter 352."

In April 1995, several neighbors of the new agricultural area filed a writ of certiorari and declaratory judgment action in district court. The defendants were the Board and individual board members Joe Rahm, Al Dudding, Laurel Fantz, James Black, and Donald McGregor (Board).

The plaintiffs, Clarence and Caroline Bormann and Leonard and Cecelia McGuire (neighbors), challenged the Board's action in a number of respects. The neighbors alleged the Board's action violated their constitutionally inalienable right to protect property under the Iowa Constitution, deprived them of property without due process or just compensation under both the federal and Iowa Constitutions, denied them due process under the federal and Iowa Constitutions, ran afoul of res judicata principles, and was "arbitrary and capricious." The applicants intervened.

Based on stipulated facts, memoranda and oral argument, the district court determined that the Board's action was "arbitrary and capricious." Apparently, the determination was based on one Board member voting on the basis of a flipped coin. This was the only ground on which the court ruled for the neighbors. The court rejected all of their other arguments.

Later, the neighbors filed an Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 179(b) motion asking the court to clarify its ruling. Meanwhile, the Board corrected the "arbitrary and capricious" infirmity to its November 1995 vote. The neighbors then sought, and received, a certification of appeal from this court.

II. Scope of Review.

The neighbors sued at law and titled their petition as one for writ of certiorari and one for declaratory judgment. In the petition for writ of certiorari, the neighbors asked that a writ of certiorari issue because the Board's decision was "in excess of" the Board's "jurisdiction" and was "contrary to law" and "illegal" because the decision "violates the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and article I, section 18 of the Iowa Constitution" in that the decision "effects a taking of the [neighbors'] private property for a use that is not public." The petition asked that the decision be annulled and decreed to be void.

In the petition for declaratory relief, the neighbors sought a declaration that the Board's decision violates the "Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and article I, section 18 of the Iowa Constitution."

Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 306 authorizes the district court to issue a writ of certiorari "where an inferior tribunal, board or officer exercising judicial functions, is alleged to have exceeded its, or his proper jurisdiction or otherwise acted illegally." (Emphasis added.) Our scope of review is limited to sustaining a board's decision or annulling it in whole or in part. Grant v. Fritz, 201 N.W.2d 188, 189 (Iowa 1972). In addition, the fact that the plaintiff has another adequate remedy does not preclude granting the writ. Iowa R. Civ. P. 308.

Thus, here, a petition for a writ of certiorari is appropriate to test the legality of the Board's decision. Our scope of review is limited to sustaining the Board's decision or annulling it in whole or in part. In addition, the fact that the neighbors may have another adequate remedy, like declaratory judgment, does not preclude our granting relief under Rule 306.

Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 261 (declaratory judgment) authorizes "courts of record within their respective jurisdiction [to] declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed."

The purpose of a declaratory judgment is to determine rights in advance. Miehls v. City of Independence, 249 Iowa 1022, 1030, 88 N.W.2d 50, 55 (1958). The essential difference between such an action and the usual action is that no actual wrong need have been committed or loss incurred to sustain declaratory judgment relief. Id. at 1031, 88 N.W.2d at 55. But there must be no uncertainty that the loss will occur or that the right asserted will be invaded. Id. As with a writ of certiorari, the fact that the plaintiff has another adequate remedy does not preclude declaratory judgment relief where it is appropriate. Iowa R. Civ. P. 261.

We think the facts here are sufficient for us to proceed under either remedy. In addition, because the facts are not in dispute, we need not concern ourselves with whether we employ a correction-of-errors-at-law review or a de novo review. Our only question is a legal one.

III. The Takings Challenge.

A. The parties' contentions.

The Board's approval of the agricultural area here triggered the provisions of Iowa Code section 352.11(1)(a). More specifically, the approval gave the applicants immunity from nuisance suits. The neighbors contend that the approval with the attendant nuisance immunity results in a taking of private property without the payment of just compensation in violation of federal and state constitutional provisions.

The neighbors concede, as they must, that their challenge to section 352.11(1)(a) is a facial one because the neighbors have presented neither allegations nor proof of nuisance. However, the neighbors strenuously argue that in a facial challenge context courts have developed certain bright line tests that spare them from this heavy burden. Specifically, the neighbors say, these bright line tests provide that a governmental action resulting in the condemnation or the imposition of certain specific property interests constitutes automatic or per se takings.

Here, the neighbors argue further, that the section 352.11(1)(a) immunity provision gives the applicants the right to create or maintain a nuisance over the neighbors' property, in effect creating an easement in favor of the applicants. The creation of the easement, the neighbors conclude, results in an automatic or per se taking under a claim of regulatory taking.

The Board and applicants respond that a per se taking occurs only when there has been a permanent physical invasion of the property or the owner has been denied all economically beneficial or productive use of the property. They insist the record reflects neither has occurred. Thus, they contend, the court must apply a balancing test enunciated in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York, 438 U.S. 104, 98 S. Ct. 2646, 57 L. Ed. 2d 631 (1978). They argue that under that balancing test the neighbors lose.

B. The relevant constitutional and statutory provisions.

1. The constitutional provisions. The Fifth Amendment to the Federal Constitution pertinently provides that " no person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution prohibits a state from "depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." The Fourteenth Amendment makes the Fifth Amendment applicable to the states and their political subdivisions. Chicago B. & Q. R.R. v. City of Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 234-35, 17 S. Ct. 581, 584, 41 L. Ed. 979 (1897).

Article I, section 9 of the Iowa Constitution pertinently provides that "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Article I, section 18 of the Iowa Constitution provides:

Eminent domain--drainage ditches and levees. Private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation first being made, or secured to be made to the owner thereof, as soon as the damages shall be assessed by a jury.
2. The statutory provisions. Iowa Code section 352.6 sets forth the procedure for obtaining an agricultural area designation. The application is to the county board of supervisors. Iowa Code s. 352.6. This provision also prescribes the conditions under which a county board of supervisors may designate farmland as an agricultural area. Id. An agricultural area includes, among other activities, raising and storing crops, the care and feeding of livestock, the treatment or disposal of wastes resulting from livestock, and the creation of noise, odor, dust, or fumes. Iowa Code s. 352.2(6).

Iowa Code section 352.11(1)(a) provides the immunity from nuisance suits:

A farm or farm operation located in an agricultural area shall not be found to be a nuisance regardless of the established date of operation or expansion of the agricultural activities of the farm or farm operation. This paragraph shall apply to a farm operation conducted within an agricultural area for six years following the exclusion of land within an agricultural area other than by withdrawal as provided in section 352.9.
The immunity does not apply to a nuisance resulting from a violation of a federal statute, regulation, state statute, or rule. Iowa Code s. 352.11(1)(b). Nor does the immunity apply to a nuisance resulting from the negligent operation of the farm or farm operation. Id. Additionally, there is no immunity from suits because of an injury or damage to a person or property caused by the farm or farm operation before the creation of the agricultural area. Id. Finally, there is no immunity from suit "for an injury or damage sustained by the person [bringing suit] because of the pollution or change in condition of the waters of a stream, the overflowing of the person's land, or excessive soil erosion into another person's land, unless the injury or damage is caused by an act of God." Id.

Iowa Code section 657.1 defines nuisance and provides for civil remedies:

Whatever is injurious to health, indecent, or unreasonably offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as essentially to unreasonably interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, is a nuisance, and a civil action by ordinary proceedings may be brought to enjoin and abate the same and to recover damages sustained on account thereof.

Iowa Code section 657.2 is a laundry list of the conduct or conditions that are deemed to be a nuisance. Those that are relevant to nuisances resulting from farming and farm operations include:
1. The erecting, continuing, or using any building or other place for the exercise of any trade, employment, or manufacture, which, by occasioning noxious exhalations, unreasonably offensive smells, or other annoyances, becomes injurious and dangerous to the health, comfort, or property of individuals or the public.

2. The causing or suffering any offal, filth, or noisome substance to be collected or to remain in any place to the prejudice of others.

. . . .

4. The corrupting or rendering unwholesome or impure the water of any river, stream, or pond, or unlawfully diverting the same from its natural course or state, to the injury or prejudice of others.

Iowa Code s. 657.2.

Our cases recognize that the statutory definition of nuisance does not "modify the common-law's application to nuisances." Weinhold v. Wolff, 555 N.W.2d 454, 459 (Iowa 1996). Rather, the statutory provisions "are skeletal in form, and [we] look to the common law to fill in the gaps." Id.

There are two kinds of nuisances: public and private. We cited the differences between the two in Guzman v. Des Moines Hotel Partners:

A public or common nuisance is a species of catchall criminal offenses, consisting of an interference with the rights of a community at large. This may include anything from the obstruction of a highway to a public gaming house or indecent exposures. A private nuisance, on the other hand, is a civil wrong based on a disturbance of rights in land. . . . The essence of a private nuisance is an interference with the use and enjoyment of land. Examples include vibrations, blasting, destruction of crops, flooding, pollution, and disturbance of the comfort of the plaintiff, as by unpleasant odors, smoke, or dust.
489 N.W.2d 7, 10 (Iowa 1992) (citations omitted). We are dealing here with private nuisances.

To fully understand the issues we are about to discuss, we think it would aid our analysis to distinguish between the concepts of "private nuisance" and "trespass." We made this distinction in Ryan v. City of Emmetsburg:

As distinguished from trespass, which is an actionable invasion of interests in the exclusive possession of land, a private nuisance is an actionable invasion of interests in the use and enjoyment of land. Trespass comprehends an actual physical invasion by tangible matter. An invasion which constitutes a nuisance is usually by intangible substances, such as noises or odors.
232 Iowa 600, 603, 4 N.W.2d 435, 439 (1942).

In Ryan, we also distinguished between the concepts of "nuisance" and "negligence." Negligence is a type of liability-forming conduct, for example, a failure to act reasonably to prevent harm. Id. In contrast, nuisance is a liability producing condition. Id. Negligence may or may not accompany a nuisance; negligence, however, is not an essential element of nuisance. Id. If the condition constituting the nuisance exists, the person responsible for it is liable for resulting damages to others even though the person acted reasonably to prevent or minimize the deleterious effect of the nuisance. Id.

C. The framework of analysis.

As the neighbors point out, the federal and state constitutional provisions we set out earlier provide the following framework for a "takings" analysis: (1) Is there a constitutionally protected private property interest at stake? (2) Has this private property interest been "taken" by the government for public use? and (3) If the protected property interest has been taken, has just compensation been paid to the owner? The neighbors contend there is a constitutionally protected private right which the Board has taken from them without paying just compensation. That taking, the neighbors contend, results from the Board's approval of the agricultural area triggering the nuisance immunity in section 352.11(1)(a). The Board and the applicants concede the neighbors have received no compensation so we need not concern ourselves with the third step of the analysis: Has just compensation been paid to the owner?

1. Is there a constitutionally protected private property interest at stake?

a. Does the immunity provision in section 352.11(1)(a) against nuisance suits create a property right? Textually, the federal and Iowa Constitutions prohibit the government from taking property for public use without just compensation. Property for just compensation purposes means "the group of rights inhering in the citizens' relation to the physical thing, as the right to possess, use and dispose of it." United States v. General Motors Corp., 323 U.S. 373, 378, 65 S. Ct. 357, 89 L. Ed. 311, 318 (1945). In short, property for just compensation purposes includes "every sort of interest the citizen may possess." Id.; see also Liddick v. Council Bluffs, 232 Iowa 197, 221-22, 5 N.W.2d 361, 374 (1942) ("Property is not alone the corporeal thing, but consists also in certain rights therein created and sanctioned by law, of which, with respect to land, the principal ones are the rights of use and enjoyment. . . .").

State law determines what constitutes a property right. Webb's Fabulous Pharmacies, Inc. v. Beckwith, 449 U.S. 155, 161, 101 S. Ct. 446, 451, 66 L. Ed. 2d 358, 362 (1980). Thus, in this case, Iowa law defines what is property.

The property interest at stake here is that of an easement, which is an interest in land. Over one hundred years ago, this court held that the right to maintain a nuisance is an easement. Churchill v. Burlington Water Co., 94 Iowa 89, 93, 62 N.W. 646, 647 (1895). Churchill defines an easement as

a privilege without profit, which the owner of one neighboring tenement [has] of another, existing in respect of their several tenements, by which the servient owner is obliged to suffer, or not do something on his own land, for the advantage of the dominant owner.

Churchill's holding that the right to maintain a nuisance is an easement and its definition of an easement are consistent with the Restatement of Property:

An easement is an interest in land which entitles the owner of the easement to use or enjoy land in the possession of another. . . . It may entitle him to do acts which he would otherwise not be privileged to do, or it may merely entitle him to prevent the owner of the land subject to the easement from doing acts which he would otherwise be privileged to do. An easement which entitles the owner to do acts which, were it not for the easement, he would not be privileged to do, is an affirmative easement. . . . [The easement] may entitle [its] owner to do acts on his own land which, were it not for the easement, would constitute a nuisance.
Restatement of Property s. 451 cmt. a, at 2911-12 (1944) (emphasis added).

Another feature of easements is that easements run with the land:

The land which is entitled to the easement or service is called a dominant tenement, and the land which is burdened with the servitude is called the servient tenement. Neither easements nor servitudes are personal, but they are accessory to, and run with, the land. The first with the dominant tenement, and the second with the servient tenement.
Dawson v. McKinnon, 226 Iowa 756, 767, 285 N.W. 258, 263 (1939).

Thus, the nuisance immunity provision in section 352.11(1)(a) creates an easement in the property affected by the nuisance (the servient tenement) in favor of the applicants' land (the dominant tenement). This is because the immunity allows the applicants to do acts on their own land which, were it not for the easement, would constitute a nuisance. For example, in their farming operations the applicants would be allowed to generate "offensive smells" on their property which without the easement would permit affected property owners to sue the applicants for nuisances. See Iowa Code s. 352.2(6); see also Buchanan v. Simplot Feeders Ltd. Partnership, 134 Wash. 2d 673, 952 P.2d 610, 615 (Wash. 1998) (holding that Washington's Right-to-Farm Act gives farm quasi easement, against urban developments that subsequently locate next to farm, to continue nuisance activities) (dictum).

b. Is an easement a protected property right subject to the requirements of the just compensation clauses of the federal and Iowa Constitutions? Easements are property interests subject to the just compensation requirements of the Fifth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. United States v. Welch, 217 U.S. 333, 339, 30 S. Ct. 527, 527, 54 L. Ed. 787, 788 (1910). Easements are also property interests subject to the just compensation requirements of our own Constitution. Simkins v. City of Davenport, 232 N.W.2d 561, 566 (Iowa 1975).

c. Has the easement resulted in a taking?

(1) Takings jurisprudence, generally. There are two categories of state action that must be compensated without any further inquiry into additional factors, such as the economic impact of the governmental conduct on the landowner or whether the regulation substantially advances a legitimate state interest. The two categories include regulations that (1) involve a permanent physical invasion of the property or (2) deny the owner all economically beneficial or productive use of the land. Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, 112 S. Ct. 2886, 120 L. Ed. 2d 798 (1992). These two categories are what the neighbors term "per se" takings. The per se rule regarding the first category -- physical invasion -- was firmly established in Loretto v. Teleprompter Manhattan CATV Corp., 458 U.S. 419, 425, 102 S. Ct. 3164, 3171, 73 L. Ed. 2d 868, 886 (1982).

Presumably, in all other cases involving "regulatory takings" challenges, the United States Supreme Court engages in a case-by-case examination in determining at which point the exercise of the police power becomes a taking. Id. This ad hoc approach calls for a balancing test that is essentially one of reasonableness. The test focuses on three factors: (1) the economic impact of the regulation on the claimant's property; (2) the regulation's interference with investment-backed expectations; and (3) the character of the governmental action. Penn Cent. Transp. Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104, 124, 98 S. Ct. 2646, 2659, 57 L. Ed. 2d 631, 648 (1978). According to some commentators, a court must first find that the regulation substantially advances legitimate state interests before the court may test the regulation against the three factors in Penn Central. See, e.g., Craig A. Peterson, Land Use Regulatory "Takings" Revisited: The New Supreme Court Approaches, 39 Hastings L.J. 335, 351 (1988).

Continued in Part Two