This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
City of Watertown,
Filed June 9, 2003
Susan M. Sager, League of Minnesota Cities, 145 University Avenue West, St. Paul, MN 55103-2044 (for respondent City of Watertown)
Michael L. Puklich, Neaton, Puklich & Klassen, 601 Carlson Parkway, Suite 620, Minnetonka, MN 55305 (for respondent Gerald Hendricks)
Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In October 2001, appellant Robert Griffith brought a declaratory-judgment action, seeking a declaration that respondent City of Watertown improperly granted respondent Gerald Hendricks a variance that allowed him to build an industrial-storage building in 1994 and an addition in 2001. On appeal from summary judgment dismissing his claims, Griffith argues that the district court erred in concluding that the city properly granted the variance and that Griffith’s claims are barred both by the doctrine of laches and the applicable statute of limitations. Because the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the doctrine of laches bars Griffith’s claims, we affirm.
In August 1994, the City of Watertown granted Gerald Hendricks a variance that allowed him to build an industrial-storage building 10 feet from the right of way on the western edge of his property rather than the required 20 feet. The plans Hendricks submitted with his 1994 variance application depicted a future addition consisting of a 100- foot by 100-foot building on the southern part of the property. The city planning commission concluded that the request satisfied the standards for granting a variance under section 62-144 of the Watertown City Code and recommended approval.
At a special meeting of the planning commission held in September 1994, the commission considered a memorandum prepared by city staff, indicating that Hendricks’s variance request could be considered as a front-yard setback request rather than a rear-yard setback request, which requires a 50-foot setback. The commission agreed and reconsidered the variance request as a front-yard-setback request. Robert Griffith, an adjacent property owner, attended the meeting and voiced his objection to the variance request, noting that it would negatively affect his property. Once again, the commission recommended approval.
A week later, the city council, acting as the board of zoning appeals, approved Hendricks’s variance request. The city issued Hendricks a building permit, and he built the industrial-storage unit at a cost of approximately $300,000.
In 1996, Hendricks requested a second variance, to allow a ten-foot setback for the construction of an addition to the north end of the storage building. The request for a second variance was necessary because this was not the addition the city council had approved in 1994. The plan Hendricks submitted with his 1994 variance request showed an addition to the south side of the building. The city council granted the request and issued Hendricks a building permit. The addition was completed in February 1997 at a cost of approximately $300,000.
In May 2001, Hendricks applied for a “variance renewal,” seeking to extend the addition approved in 1994 by 20 feet. At the planning commission’s June meeting, city staff indicated that the 100-foot by 100-foot addition the city council had approved in 1994 served as a “precedent” and that, for that reason, it would support construction of the originally proposed addition, even though Hendricks had not demonstrated the requisite undue hardship when the city council granted the 1994 variance. But city staff added that it did not support the request for a 20-foot extension. Hendricks explained that the proposed addition would meet the same setback the 1994 variance allowed and that the variance renewal would merely extend the length of the new building 20 feet. The planning commission recommended approval of the originally proposed 100-foot by 100-foot expansion.
In June 2001, the city council granted Hendricks a 20-foot variance from the required 30-foot setback and issued him a building permit for the construction of the 100-square-foot addition. In October 2001, Griffith brought this declaratory-judgment action. Hendricks and the city moved for summary judgment. By the time of the summary-judgment hearing, the addition was nearly complete and Hendricks had incurred an additional $260,000 in expenses and construction costs.
In September 2002, the district court granted Hendricks’s and the City of Watertown’s motions for summary judgment, dismissing Griffith’s claims on the grounds that the variance was properly granted and that the claims were barred both by laches and the applicable statute of limitations. This appeal follows.
This matter comes before us following the district court’s grant of summary judgment. A grant of summary judgment is a decision on the merits. DLH, Inc. v. Russ, 566 N.W.2d 60, 69 (Minn. 1997). When the facts are not in dispute, we review a grant of summary judgment to determine if the district court erred as a matter of law. See Skyline Pres. Found. v. County of Polk, 621 N.W.2d 727, 731 (Minn. 2001). A district court’s decision to apply the doctrine of laches is not a decision on the merits. See Melendez v. O’Connor, 654 N.W.2d 114, 117 (Minn. 2002) (reaching merits only after deciding as a preliminary matter whether suit should be dismissed for laches). The decision whether to apply laches lies within the district court’s discretion, and will be reversed only for an abuse of that discretion. See Opp v. LaBine, 516 N.W.2d 193, 196 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. Aug. 24, 1994).
We first address Griffith’s argument that the district court abused its discretion by concluding that his suit was barred by laches. Laches is an equitable doctrine 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. Klapmeier v. Town of Center, 346 N.W.2d 133, 137 (Minn. 1984); Harr v. City of Edina, 541 N.W.2d 603, 606 (Minn. App. 1996). The doctrine seeks “to promote vigilance and to discourage delay in enforcing rights” and to prevent parties who have procrastinated unreasonably and without excuse from bringing stale claims. State ex rel. Sawyer v. Mangni, 231 Minn. 457, 468, 43 N.W.2d 775, 781 (1950). The party asserting laches must prove that the delay in asserting the claims at issue was inexcusable and prejudicial. See City of St. Paul v. Harding, 356 N.W.2d 319, 322 (Minn. App. 1984) (stating that person asserting laches must show “inexcusable delay”); Klapmeier,346 N.W.2d at 137 (stating that basic question in applying laches is “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” (quotation omitted)). Although evidence of prejudice is not always essential, it is an important factor in determining whether a party’s delay was inexcusable. See Klapmeier, 346 N.W.2d at 137. Laches applies to land-use claims. See Shortridge v. Daubney, 425 N.W.2d 840, 842 (Minn. 1988).
The district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the doctrine of laches bars Griffith’s claims. The record fully supports the district court’s finding that Griffith’s delay in asserting known rights was inexcusable. Griffith does not dispute that he had actual notice of the 1994 variance or that, being an adjacent property owner, he was well aware of Hendricks’s construction projects. Nor does he dispute that (1) the construction of the original building was completed in 1995 at a cost of approximately $300,000; (2) the first addition was completed in February 1997 at approximately the same cost; or (3) by the time of the summary-judgment hearing, a second addition was nearly complete and Hendricks had incurred an additional $260,000 in expenses and construction costs. Yet, Griffith waited until 2001 to file his declaratory-judgment action challenging the variance and the extension that allowed Hendricks to build.
The record similarly supports the district court’s finding that the delay was prejudicial. Hendricks incurred approximately $860,000 in costs in reliance on the validity of the variances.
Griffith argues that the doctrine of laches does not bar his claims because he did not delay in challenging the 2001 variance. But the district court specifically found that the 2001 variance was not a new variance but rather an extension or reaffirmation of the 1994 variance allowing Hendricks to build a 100-foot by 100-foot addition. The record supports the district court’s finding. The city council denied Hendricks’s 2001 request to extend the addition approved in 1994 an additional 20 feet and granted Hendricks a building permit only for the originally approved addition. By so doing, the city in effect reaffirmed the original variance. The city code does not impose a deadline for a landowner to act on a variance. The 1994 variance was thus still valid in 2001, when Hendricks began construction of the addition approved in 1994. The district court did not abuse its discretion, therefore, in finding that the 2001 variance was not a new variance.
Because we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that laches bars Griffith’s claims, we need not decide whether the variance was properly issued or whether Griffith’s claims are barred by the applicable statute of limitations.
 Significantly, other analogous sections of the city code set specific deadlines. E.g., Watertown, Minn., City Code §§ 62-105 (setting a 90-day deadline for a property owner to begin work described in a building permit), 62-125 (specifying that a conditional-use permit expires if use ceases for more than 12 consecutive months).