500, LLC v. Minneapolis

Supreme Court of Minnesota, No. A11-1705, September 25, 2013: Action on certificate of appropriateness to alter historic landmark is “relating to zoning” under Minnesota law.

Under Minnesota law (Minn. Stat. § 15.99, subd. 2(a) (2012)) a city has only 60 days to “approve or deny” an application for a “written request relating to zoning” or the request is automatically approved. When plaintiff 500, LLC (the “developer”), submitted plans to develop a property, the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission (the “Commission”) nominated the property for designation as a local historic landmark. The Commission’s action placed the property under “interim protection,” which prohibits “destruction or inappropriate alteration [of a nominated property] during the designation process” in the absence of a “certificate of appropriateness.” The developer submitted a written request to the Commission for its proposal but the Commission denied the request more than 60 days later. The developer sued. Both the trial court and the appeals court sided with the City, saying that a certificate of appropriateness is not a “request relating to zoning.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision, based on the court’s interpretation of the plain meaning of the words of the statute (which are not defined in the statute). The court said “relating to” means “to stand in some relation; to have bearing or concern; to pertain; refer; to bring into association with or connection with.” Zoning, the court said, had been defined by the court in a prior case as “the regulation of ‘building development and uses of property.’” Putting the two definitions together, the court said the statute means a “request that has a connection, association, or logical relationship to the regulation of building development or the uses of property.”

The court found that the developer’s request to the Commission fell within that definition because (1) “heritage-preservation proceedings have a connection, association, or logical relationship to zoning”, (2) the state’s historic preservation enabling laws (the Minnesota Historic District Act and the Municipal Heritage Preservation Act. Minneapolis, Minn., Code of Ordinances § 599.20 (2013)) “recognize a connection, association, or logical relationship between heritage preservation and zoning” and (3) the city’s own heritage preservation ordinances “identify a connection, association, or logical relationship between an application for a certificate of appropriateness and zoning.”

A concurring opinion by one Justice did not dispute that “request related to zoning” includes a request for a certificate of appropriateness, but expresses a reservation. The concurring opinion stated that in this case, the 60-day decision window should not toll from the date of submission of the developer’s request to the Commission to the date of the Commission’s denial of that request. Rather the 60-day window should toll from the date of the developer’s appeal to the City Council of the Commission’s denial of the request to the date of the Council’s denial of the appeal. That denial was within 60 days of the developer’s appeal. Nevertheless, this Justice concurred in the result because in the pleadings the City conceded that, if the application for a certificate of appropriateness constitutes a written request relating to zoning, the denial of that application was outside the 60-day limit.

Decision available at http://mn.gov/lawlib/archive/supct/1309/OPA111705-0925.pdf.

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