This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Donald A. Bateman, as Trustee of
the Donald A. Bateman Trust, petitioner,
The City Council of the City of La Crescent,
a Public Body Consisting of Gregory Husman,
Daniel Frosch, Mikel Poellinger (Mayor), R.C. Stout,
and Duane Zenke,
Robert L. Nickerson,
Building Official for the City of La Crescent,
Ron Strub, et al.,
Filed July 18, 2000
Houston County District Court
File No. C1-98-26
Michael W. Gill, Hale, Skemp, Hanson, Skemp & Sleik, 505 King Street, Suite 300, P.O. Box 1927, La Crosse, WI 54602-1927 (for appellant)
Pierre N. Regnier, Cara Jane Debes, Jardine, Logan & O’Brien, P.L.L.P., 2100 Piper Jaffray Plaza, 444 Cedar Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2160 (for respondent City Council)
Ross A. Phelps, 106 South Walnut Street, La Crescent, MN 55947 (for respondent Strub)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Foley, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant Donald A. Bateman petitioned the district court for a writ of mandamus compelling the La Crescent City Council (city council) to enforce its zoning ordinance. The petition was later amended to include a claim against respondents Ron and Kris Strub (the Strubs) after the district court determined they were interested parties. The City of La Crescent (city) moved to quash appellant’s petition on the grounds that it was barred by the doctrine of laches. Concluding that the application of laches is a question of fact requiring a full evidentiary hearing, the district court denied the motion.
Following trial, the district court dismissed appellant’s entire action, including the writ of mandamus, because his claims were barred by the doctrine of laches. Appellant filed posttrial motions requesting amended findings of fact and conclusions of law, or, alternatively, a new trial. The district court denied the motions because the proposed amended findings were either contrary to the evidence or unnecessary to support its conclusions of law. Bateman appeals. Because the record as a whole supports the district court’s discretionary application of laches, and the district court did not err in denying appellant’s posttrial motions, we affirm.
Appellant owns property adjacent to the Strubs. At all times pertinent to this action, the Strubs’ property was zoned commercial. In late summer 1997, the Strubs contacted Robert Nickerson, La Crescent’s zoning administrator and building official, about converting an existing building on their property into a three‑unit residential structure and constructing an office building in front of that structure. Nickerson informed the Strubs that while a conditional use permit was necessary to convert the existing structure into a multi‑family dwelling, construction of the office building was permitted under the commercial zoning ordinance. Accordingly, the Strubs’ conditional use permit application indicated their intention to convert the existing structure into a multi‑family dwelling and construct an office building on their property.
On September 2, 1997, Nickerson sent a letter notifying city planning commission members that the Strubs’ conditional use permit application would be discussed at the September 9 meeting. Nickerson attached to the letter the application, a drawing of the lot and buildings, a notice of the public hearing, a letter from Ron Strub, and a layout of the proposed building. At the meeting, planning commission members discussed the conditional use permit for the multi-family dwelling, but did not address commercial zoning setback requirements relevant to the office building construction.
Appellant served as chairman of the planning commission from its inception until approximately December 31, 1997, and helped draft the city’s original zoning ordinances. In addition to his service on the planning commission, appellant testified that as a building contractor for 50 years, he is familiar with building permits and zoning laws. Despite serving as chairperson at the September 9 meeting, appellant did not participate in the discussion or vote on the Strubs’ conditional use permit.
After the planning commission meeting on September 9, commission member Donald Hermann phoned appellant to explain that the commercial zoning ordinance required a 30‑foot setback.
On September 22, the city council passed a resolution granting the Strubs a conditional use permit to convert the existing building into a multi-family dwelling and construct the office building. Despite knowledge of the setback requirements and the need for city council approval, appellant did not object to the permit. The city issued a building permit for the construction of the office building on October 8.
The planning commission met again on October 14, 1997, but appellant was not present and there was no discussion of the Strubs’ permit. Appellant testified that soon after excavation began, on or about October 22, he discussed the setback issue with the excavator. Seven to ten days later, he discussed the setback issue with a cement masonry contractor. While appellant claims he and the contractor each questioned Ron Strub about the setback, the Strubs testified that appellant only complained about the side lot. Appellant also claims he attempted to discuss the setback violation with Nickerson in early November 1997, but spoke with the city attorney because Nickerson was unavailable.
At the November 10, 1997, planning commission meeting, appellant was informed that the commission and city council were treating the Strubs’ project as a through lot and waiving the setback requirement. However, he did not raise the setback issue or challenge the zoning administrator’s authority to waive the requirement. Appellant’s first documented objection to the office building project occurred at a November 24 city council meeting. By that time, the Strubs had already incurred construction costs, totaling approximately $45,000.
In response to appellant’s objection, the mayor instructed the city attorney to research the setback issue and report back to the city council as soon as possible. A few days later, after the prefabricated office building was delivered to the Strubs, appellant inquired about the status of his objection with councilman Duane Zenke. Testifying that he believed from his conversation with Zenke that the city attorney had recommended a work stoppage, appellant took no further action. However, the construction continued. On December 12 a certificate of occupancy was issued for the office building. Appellant commenced the present action on approximately January 20, 1998, and joined the Strubs on March 23, 1998.
A district court’s decision to apply the doctrine of laches will not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion. Opp v. Opp, 516 N.W.2d 193, 196 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. Aug. 24, 1994). “Application of the doctrine of laches depends on a factual determination in each case.” Harr v. City of Edina, 541 N.W.2d 603, 606 (Minn. App. 1996). In deciding whether to apply the laches doctrine, courts must determine
whether there has been such an unreasonable delay in asserting a known right, resulting in prejudice to others, as would make it inequitable to grant the relief prayed for.
Id. (quotation omitted). The doctrine of laches is intended
to prevent one who has not been diligent in asserting a known right from recovering at the expense of one who has been prejudiced by the delay.
Id. (quotation omitted). Appellant alleges the district court did not consider all the proper elements of laches when determining that laches applied because the court failed to: (1) determine that appellant knew of his rights; (2) find that appellant relinquished or abandoned his rights; and (3) consider the effect of the city’s actions on the length of delay in asserting appellant’s rights.
Appellant first learned that his neighbors, the Strubs, intended to build an office building on the commercial lot next to his home in early September 1997 after receiving materials regarding the Strubs’ application for a conditional use permit. Additionally, following the September 9 city planning commission meeting, one of appellant’s fellow commissioners informed him that the Strubs’ office building project might violate the commercial zoning setback requirement. Appellant argues that the mere fact that he was aware of a potential setback violation does not mean he knew of his rights because he relied on the zoning administrator’s recommendation that the project complied with zoning requirements. However, the record clearly shows that appellant knew on September 9, if not earlier, that the Strubs’ office building might violate the setback requirement.
Appellant also contends laches is inapplicable because he never relinquished or abandoned his rights. Ryan v. Minneapolis Police Relief Ass’n, 251 Minn. 250, 255, 88 N.W.2d 17, 21 (1958) (stating laches applies when delay and circumstances establish an abandonment or relinquishment of rights). Despite appellant’s reliance on Ryan, there is no formal requirement that the plaintiff’s rights be abandoned or relinquished. The doctrine of laches prevents a non-diligent plaintiff from recovering at the expense of a person who will be prejudiced by the delay in asserting a known right. Harr, 541 N.W.2d at 606. The application of the doctrine of laches is based in equity and depends on the factual circumstances of each case. Id.
In this case, appellant did not take formal legal action to stop the Strubs’ office building project until January 20, 1998, despite being an experienced contractor, the self-described “godfather” of La Crescent’s city ordinances, and chairman of the planning commission for approximately 36 years. In fact, the record demonstrates that appellant did not (1) object to the city council’s decision to grant the Strubs’ conditional use permit on September 22; (2) object to the issuance of the building permit on October 8; (3) attend the October 14 planning commission meeting; (4) speak with the zoning administrator or city attorney about his objection until early November; or (5) formally object to the setback violation until the November 24 city council meeting. The record is clear that appellant did not legally assert his opposition to the project until well after the Strubs had incurred construction costs in excess of $45,000 and commenced occupancy on December 12, 1997. Because the doctrine of laches is based in equity and does not require any specific findings, there was no abuse of discretion in applying laches to bar appellant’s claims without a finding appellant abandoned or relinquished his rights.
Furthermore, appellant contends the city contributed to any delay in asserting his rights and cites Industrial Loan & Thrift Corp. v. Benson, 221 Minn. 70, 73, 21 N.W.2d 99, 101 (1945), for the proposition that laches is inapplicable where both parties contribute to the delay in asserting known rights. Appellant alleges the delay in asserting his rights was not solely his fault because (1) the planning commission did not specifically address the Strubs’ office building project at the September 9 meeting; (2) the zoning administrator reported that the Strubs’ project complied with city zoning ordinances; and (3) the city council led appellant to believe the project had been stopped or was being investigated. However, the record shows that appellant originally knew of the possible setback violation in early September, but did not raise the setback issue or object to the zoning administrator’s authority to waive the setback requirement at the November 10 planning commission meeting. Appellant’s first objection to the setback requirement waiver came at the November 24 city council meeting, yet he did not commence formal legal action until late January.
There is no evidence that the city contributed to appellant’s delay in asserting his rights. Instead, the record as a whole shows that he ignored opportunities to raise the setback issue and delayed formal action until the Strubs had incurred substantial construction costs. The doctrine of laches bars recovery where a non-diligent plaintiff’s delay in asserting a known right will unfairly prejudice another person. Harr, 541 N.W.2d at 606. Because the entire record demonstrates the prejudice that would result in allowing appellant to assert his rights after such an unreasonable delay, there is ample evidence to support the district court’s discretionary application of the doctrine of laches. See Opp, 516 N.W.2d at 196 (explaining trial court’s considerable discretion in applying laches).
Appellant also argues the district court erred in focusing exclusively on the Strubs. Both the Strubs and the city asserted the doctrine of laches as a defense. See RES Inv. Co. v. County of Dakota, 494 N.W.2d 64, 67 (Minn. App. 1992) (requiring equitable doctrine of laches to be raised as affirmative defense), review denied (Minn. Feb. 25, 1993). Appellant’s requested relief did not depend on whether the court ordered the Strubs to move the office building or the city to enforce its ordinance; he simply sought a court order to move the building. Laches is directly applicable to the relief sought. See Harr, 541 N.W.2d at 606 (laches applicable where unreasonable delay makes it inequitable to grant relief sought). Therefore, laches is equally applicable to either respondent and appellant’s argument is without merit. Similarly, appellant’s contention that laches does not bar his action because there was no showing that granting the writ of mandamus would prejudice the city is not persuasive.
Appellant contends the district court erroneously denied his motions for amended and additional findings of fact or a new trial because the court set forth insufficient facts to justify its conclusion of law and failed to make several findings of fact necessary for the application of laches. A district court is required to make findings necessary to support its conclusions of law. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01; Frank v. Illinois Farmers Ins. Co., 336 N.W.2d 307, 311 (Minn. 1983). Where a district court’s findings “are sustained by the evidence and sufficient to sustain the conclusions of law, a refusal to make additional findings is not error.” Lafayette Club v. Roberts, 196 Minn. 605, 611, 265 N.W. 802, 805 (1936). Moreover, a district court is not required to make additional findings conflicting with its existing findings. National Sur. Co. v. Wittich, 186 Minn. 93, 95, 242 N.W. 545, 545 (1932); see Kehrer v. Seeman, 182 Minn. 596, 602, 235 N.W. 386, 389 (1931) (refusing to reverse findings unless evidence so conclusively favors proposed findings that contrary findings cannot stand). “To justify the reversal of a refusal to make amended findings, it is not enough to show that there was evidence to justify the proposed amended findings.” Nielsen v. City of St. Paul, 252 Minn. 12, 29, 88 N.W.2d 853, 864 (1958). Instead, the moving party must “show that there is no substantial evidence reasonably tending to sustain the trial court’s findings.” Nielsen, 252 Minn. at 29, 88 N.W.2d at 864. This court will not disturb findings of fact supported by the evidence as whole. Id.
Appellant contends the district court erroneously failed to find that: (1) the September 9 meeting did not address the setback issue; (2) the city improperly treated the Strubs’ property as a through lot; (3) there was no physical activity on the Strubs’ property to alert appellant of a possible setback violation until excavation began in late October and the footings were laid in early November; (4) appellant spoke with the city attorney after attempting to discuss the Strubs’ project with the zoning administrator; (5) appellant objected to the Strubs’ project at the November 24 city council meeting and was told the city would investigate the matter; and (6) the city contributed to any delay in asserting his rights. The district court found appellant was directly involved in the Strubs’ matter, having chaired the planning commission meeting at which the Strub’s application was heard. The court also found that appellant did not object or speak in opposition to the application at the meeting and was informed of the setback requirement after the meeting, but took no action until after the footings were laid. Because these findings are supported by the record as a whole and are sufficient to sustain the application of the doctrine of laches, the district court did not err in refusing to amend or add findings of fact or in denying appellant’s motion for a new trial.
Upon a full review of this case, it is abundantly clear that the learned trial court gave careful consideration to all issues raised by appellant.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.