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LLC v. City of Ames

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 8, 2019

AMES 2304, LLC, Appellant,
v.
CITY OF AMES, ZONING BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT, Appellee.

         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Story County, Michael J. Moon, Judge.

         The City of Ames's Zoning Board of Adjustment seeks further review of a court of appeals decision sustaining Ames 2304's writ of certiorari regarding the legality of the Board's denial of Ames 2304's permit for a proposed interior remodel. WRIT SUSTAINED.

          Debra Hulett of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Eric M. Updegraff, Brent L. Hinders, and Hugh J. Cain of Hopkins & Huebner, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

          CHRISTENSEN, JUSTICE.

         Ames 2304, LLC (Ames 2304) filed a petition for writ of certiorari after the City of Ames's Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) denied Ames 2304's permit for an interior remodel of a nonconforming use residential structure. The proposed remodel would increase the number of bedrooms while maintaining the same number of apartment dwelling units, and the ZBA determined the zoning ordinance prohibited this increase in bedrooms because it would increase the intensity of the nonconforming use. The district court annulled the writ, and the court of appeals reversed the district court ruling on appeal. The ZBA sought further review.

         On our review, we conclude the zoning ordinance defines an "increase in intensity" as an increase in the number of dwelling units. Consequently, the ZBA erred in denying Ames 2304's interior remodeling permit because the remodel would not increase the number of dwelling units in the structure. Therefore, we affirm the court of appeals' decision, reverse the judgment of the district court, and remand to the district court for entry of an order sustaining the writ of certiorari.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Ames 2304 owns the property located at 2304 Knapp Street in Ames, Iowa. The property was originally built as a single-family structure in 1910, and it was converted to its current four one-bedroom apartment units in 1928. Two apartment units occupy each floor in the two-story home. The property is zoned low density residential according to the City of Ames (the City) Municipal Code, which permits only single-family detached residential dwellings with one dwelling per lot. However, the property was grandfathered in as a legal nonconforming use and has been operating as one since the four-unit apartments were established prior to the City's current zoning ordinance.

         In April 2016, Ames 2304 sought a building permit to remodel the property's interior.[1] Under the proposal, the first floor would transform from two one-bedroom units into one studio unit and one two-bedroom unit. Additionally, Ames 2304 would convert the two one-bedroom units on the second floor into one studio unit and one three-bedroom unit. In total, Ames 2304 seeks to increase the number of bedrooms from four to seven while maintaining the same number of apartments after the remodel.[2] A zoning enforcement officer for the City's ZBA denied Ames 2304's building permit on April 19, noting the proposed remodel was not permitted because the increase in the number of bedrooms constituted a prohibited increase in the intensity of the nonconforming use. The zoning enforcement officer informed Ames 2304 that the permit for the proposed remodel could not "be issued until the remodel reduces the number of bedrooms for the property to not exceed the allowed four units and four total bedrooms for the site."

         Ames 2304 filed a timely appeal to the ZBA. The ZBA held a hearing on June 22 and affirmed the zoning enforcement officer's decision to deny the permit by a vote of three to one. In its written decision, the ZBA noted that "the addition of bedrooms has been in the past and is still considered to be an intensification of such use." Additionally, it concluded the change in the number of bedrooms in the units "intensifies the site requirements for the property requiring that additional parking be provided." The ZBA determined the City's zoning ordinance "does not allow increases in intensity for non-conforming structures undergoing internal remodeling."

         Ames 2304 filed a petition for writ of certiorari on August 23. The district court conducted a trial on June 14, 2017, in which Ames 2304 presented two arguments in support of its request for the district court to reverse the ZBA's decision. First, Ames 2304 argued the ZBA improperly interpreted section 29.307(2)(a)(ii) of the City of Ames Municipal Code. Second, Ames 2304 claimed the facts failed to support the ZBA's finding that the proposed remodel would increase the intensity of the property's nonconforming use. The district court rejected these arguments and annulled the writ of certiorari.

         Ames 2304 filed a notice of appeal to our court on July 14, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. On appeal, Ames 2304 argued (1) the ZBA acted illegally in denying Ames 2304's permit for the proposed interior remodel and (2) substantial evidence did not support the ZBA's determination that the proposed interior remodel would increase the intensity. The court of appeals concluded the intensity of the property's use is tied to the number of dwelling units. Thus, since Ames 2304 is not increasing the number of dwelling units in the property, the court of appeals determined the proposed remodel does not violate the City's prohibition against an increase in the intensity of the nonconforming use. Based on this interpretation of the City's Municipal Code, the court of appeals also concluded the ZBA's findings were not supported by substantial evidence and the ZBA acted illegally in denying Ames 2304's permit for the proposed remodel. The ZBA sought further review, which we granted.

          II. Standard of Review.

         We "review an original certiorari action for the correction of errors at law." Vance v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 907 N.W.2d 473, 476 (Iowa 2018). A party may present a certiorari action "when authorized by a statute or when an 'inferior tribunal, board, or officer' exceeded its jurisdiction or otherwise acted illegally in executing judicial functions." Bowman v. City of Des Moines Mun. Hous. Agency, 805 N.W.2d 790, 796 (Iowa 2011) (quoting Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.1401). "An inferior tribunal commits an illegality if the decision violates a statute, is not supported by substantial evidence, or is unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious." Id. "Evidence is considered substantial when reasonable minds could accept it as adequate to reach a conclusion." Vance, 907 N.W.2d at 476 (quoting State v. Garrity, 765 N.W.2d 592, 595 (Iowa 2009)). We are bound by the findings in the record if there is substantial evidence to support the inferior tribunal's decision. Bowman, 805 N.W.2d at 796. Finally, "we give deference to the board of adjustment's interpretation of its city's zoning ordinances," but the "final construction and interpretation of zoning ordinances is a question of law for us to decide." Lauridsen v. Okoboji Bd. of Adjustment, 554 N.W.2d 541, 543 (Iowa 1996).

         III. ...


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