This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Ernest F. Sayler,
Becker County Board of Commissioners,
Becker County Board of Commissioners
B. Joseph Majors, II, Thorwaldsen, Malmstrom, Sorum, Wilson, LaFlair & Majors, P.L.L.P., 1105 Highway 10 East, P.O. Box 1599, Detroit Lakes, MN 56502-1599 (for relator)
Michael T. Rengel, Nicholas Heydt, Pemberton, Sorlie, Rufer & Kerschner, P.L.L.P., 110 North Mill Street, P.O. Box 866, Fergus Falls, MN 56538-0866 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge; Shumaker, Judge; and Crippen, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
GORDON W. SHUMAKER, Judge
Relator Earnest Sayler appeals respondent Becker County Board of Commissioners’ decision to deny approval of his preliminary plat for the development of 25 lake lots located in a general-agricultural zoning district. Relator argues that the board’s denial was based on legally insufficient reasons, asserting the preliminary plat proposed a permitted land use and complied with the regulatory standards prescribed for that use. Because relator’s preliminary plat fails to meet the minimum ordinance requirements, we affirm.
In August 2002, relator Earnest Sayler submitted a preliminary plat to respondent Becker County Board of Commissioners (the board) proposing to develop 25 unsewered lake lots, each smaller than 2.5 acres in size and located in a general-agricultural zoning district. Relator also requested a zoning change from agricultural to residential. The planning commission for the county initially tabled relator’s application after determining that relator was first required to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). In December 2002, a committee reviewing the EAW recommended that prior to any approval, the county consider various concerns regarding the preliminary plat:
1. Stakke Lake is classified as a Recreational Development however, the lake characteristics reflect Natural Environment classification.
2. The lake bay in which the plat is located has a history of “drying up” limiting lake access . . . .
3. The . . . soil type has severe limitations in reference to construction of dwellings, roads and individual sewage treatment systems . . . this area of the project may not be suitable for 40,000 sq. ft. lot sizes.
4. The proposed road location changes the hydrology of existing drainage patterns, including wetlands . . . .
5. There are steep slopes, possible bluffs, wetlands, aquatic vegetation and shoreland vegetation fringes not adequately shown on the preliminary plat . . . .
6. The Committee recommends that Section 1 Subdivision 8 Land Suitability of the Becker County Subdivision Ordinance be reviewed and considered prior to preliminary approval.
The planning commission again reviewed relator’s preliminary plat in January 2003. Planning commission members continued to voice concerns regarding the preliminary plat, including that the area should either remain zoned as agricultural and be replatted with 2.5-acre lots or the matter tabled until the snow melted because problem soils could not be seen or tested while the ground was snow-covered and frozen; and that the review committee’s concerns regarding steep slopes, possible bluffs, and vegetation were not adequately addressed. The planning commission tabled the application for 60 days to allow relator to (1) provide information on soil types to make sure the lots were large enough to accommodate dwellings and two septic-system sites; (2) identify the steep slopes, possible bluffs, wetlands, aquatic vegetation, and shoreland vegetation fringes; (3) show drainage patterns after the construction of the proposed road; and (4) indicate road specifications and erosion-control plans.
In May 2003, relator prepared a revised preliminary plat. Later that month, the planning commission recommended denial of both the zoning-change request and approval of the preliminary plat. The planning commission’s concerns included the concerns of the EAW review committee as well as the proposed lot sizes. It is unclear from this record whether the EAW review committee reviewed the May 2003 revised preliminary plat (or soil-erosion plan) in which relator claims to have addressed some of the review committee’s and planning commission’s earlier concerns. Relator states that the revised preliminary plat “sets forth the lot size for each lot, two septic system sites for each lot and amplified the identification of the areas questioned and delineated drainage, road specifications and erosion control plans . . . . Soil types and boring (percolation) reports were also submitted.” Lot sizes, however, remained unchanged and ranged in size from 46,000 to 74,000 square feet, or each less than 2.5 acres.
On May 27, 2003, the board denied relator’s zoning-change request and approval of his preliminary plat. The board “concur[red] with the findings and recommendations of the [planning commission] to deny a request for a change of zone from agricultural to residential and a preliminary plat for 25 lots on Stakke Lake . . . based on the comments and concerns of the EAW Committee.” On June 3, 2003, the county sent a letter to relator informing him of the board’s decision to “deny the change of zone and deny the preliminary plat consisting of 25 lots.” This appeal followed, in which relator challenges only the denial of approval of his preliminary plat.
As a threshold matter, we note that relator challenges only that portion of the board’s decision denying the preliminary-plat request and not the rezoning request. Therefore, because the only issue presented on appeal is the denial of approval of the preliminary plat, those portions of the board’s brief in which the board argues that it had a proper basis to deny relator’s rezoning request need not be considered by this court. However, even if relator’s arguments were to have been construed as challenging the rezoning issue, a jurisdictional question arises because this court does not hear zoning appeals by writ of certiorari. See Honn v. City of Coon Rapids, 313 N.W.2d 409, 416 (Minn. 1981) (stating that agency’s zoning determination is a legislative act that is not reviewable by certiorari in the court of appeals, but by a direct action in district court).
“The denial or approval of a preliminary-plat application is a quasi-judicial administrative decision that we review to determine whether the decision is unreasonable, arbitrary or capricious.” Hurrle v. County of Sherburne ex rel. Board of Comm’rs, 594 N.W.2d 246, 249 (Minn. App. 1999). A decision is arbitrary or capricious if it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, is based on a legally insufficient reason, or is based on subjective or unreasonably vague standards. PTL, L.L.C. v. Chisago County Bd. of Comm’rs, 656 N.W.2d 567, 571 (Minn. App. 2003). If an ordinance specifies minimum standards to which a development plan must conform, “local officials lack discretionary authority to deny approval of a preliminary plat that meets those standards.” Id.
Relator argues that (1) the board’s decision to deny approval of his preliminary plat is legally insufficient because the preliminary plat satisfies the requirements of the zoning and subdivision ordinances for preliminary plats; (2) the revised plat addresses several of the concerns expressed by the review committee and that the review committee never reviewed the revised preliminary plat; (3) neither the planning commission nor the county board ever notified him of the reason for the denial as required under Becker County’s Subdivision Ordinance, Sec. 4, subd. 1.A; and (4) the Land Suitability section of the subdivision ordinance, Sec. 1, subd. 8, is too vague and general to be enforceable.
1. Zoning and subdivision ordinances
Relator argues that the preliminary plat satisfies the requirements of the zoning and subdivision ordinances and thus, the board’s decision to deny approval of his preliminary plat is legally insufficient. Interpretation of a zoning ordinance presents a question of law, which this court reviews de novo. Sunrise Lake Ass’n. v. Chisago County Bd. of Comm’rs, 633 N.W.2d 59, 62 (Minn. App. 2001). Becker County Ordinance provides:“The minimum lot area, lot width, and lot depth shall conform to the requirements of the Zoning District in which the plat is situated as required by the Becker County Zoning Ordinance.” Becker County, Minn. Subdivision Ordinance § 3, subd. 2A (2002).
It is undisputed that the zoning district where relator’s proposed development plat is situated is located within a general-agriculture land-use district, thus the general-agriculture land-use district requirements apply. In a general-agricultural district, the required minimum lot size is 2.5 acres. Becker County, Minn. Zoning Ordinance § 6, subd. 3 (2002). In addition, relator’s proposed development falls within the Stakke Lake shoreland area; thus, the shoreland standards of the zoning ordinance Section 12 apply. Id. at § 12 (providing “standards in [the shoreland standards] section shall apply to all shoreland within the County and shall supersede the requirements of the rest of the Ordinance.”) Stakke Lake’s shoreland area is classified as a Recreational Development Lake (RD Lake) requiring a minimum lot area of 40,000 square feet. Id. at § 5, subd. 7. In a general-agricultural district, in a shoreland area classified as a RD Lake, such as Stakke Lake, the zoning ordinance permits development of one single-family residence per lot. Id at § 6, subd. 1(6).
Relator argues that the shoreland standards supersede the requirements of the rest of the ordinance and, thus, his plat should be approved because his lot area satisfies the less-restrictive minimum 40,000 square foot requirement for an RD Lake classification. As primary support for relator’s position that the preliminary plat satisfies the zoning and subdivision ordinances, relator cites PTL, 656 N.W.2d 567. In PTL, a real estate developer sought certiorari review of a county board decision denying preliminary plat approval for 14 single-family dwellings on five-acre lots, with each lot having a minimum width of 300 feet and minimum buildable area of one acre. Id. at 572. This court determined that, because the developer’s preliminary plat proposed a permitted use of single-family dwellings, the board of commissioners’ authority was limited to reviewing PTL’s application to determine only if the preliminary plat complied with the standards the zoning and subdivision ordinances prescribe for single-family dwellings in an agricultural district. Id. The board in PTL exceeded its authority because the real estate developer’s proposal complied with the specific requirements for single-family dwellings: five-acre lots, 300-foot minimum width, and one-acre minimum buildable area. Id.
In this case, it is undisputed that relator’s proposed development is a shoreland area located within a general-agricultural zoning district. Although portions of the shoreland standards in the zoning ordinance may supersede other parts of the ordinance, the shoreland standards do not state that the more restrictive lot-size requirements of the general-agricultural district should be superseded by the least restrictive, smaller lot-size requirements of a RD Lake shoreland classification. The general zoning classification for an agricultural district controls lot size, which in this case is a minimum of 2.5 acres per lot. In addition, the zoning district’s minimum lot size of 2.5 acres satisfies the shoreland minimum standard of 40,000 square feet.
Under Minnesota rules governing shorelands, the board is authorized to adopt such more restrictive zoning requirements when it considers a proposed development in a shoreland area zoned as a general-agricultural district:
These minimum standards and criteria apply to those shorelands of public waters of the state which are subject to local government land use controls . . . . Nothing in these standards and criteria shall be construed as prohibiting or discouraging a local government from adopting and enforcing controls that are more restrictive.
Minn. R. 6120.2800.
Despite relator’s interpretation of the zoning and subdivision ordinances, his proposed development falls within a shoreland area zoned as a general-agricultural district, which requires a minimum lot size of 2.5 acres for each single-family dwelling. Unlike the situation in PTL, the board in this case did not exceed its authority because relator’s proposal failed to comply with the minimum requirements of the zoning ordinance, specifically lot size for single-family dwellings located in a general-agricultural district.
Relator argues that the revised preliminary plat addressed the concerns cited by the EAW review committee listed in its December 2002 report, which was based on the preliminary plat submitted in August 2002. Relator argues that the EAW review committee never reviewed the revised preliminary plat, and therefore the planning commission and the county’s alleged reasons for denying approval of the preliminary plat were erroneous and could not have been based on the review committee’s concerns.
It is undisputed, however, that relator did not change in the revised preliminary plat the number or size of the lots. Therefore, because the revised preliminary plat failed to comply with the 2.5-acre minimum lot size requirement, the board’s concerns and rationale for denying the preliminary plat request remained unchanged and unaffected by any further review by the EAW review committee.
Relator argues that he was never told the reasons for denial of approval of the preliminary plat. The subdivision ordinance requires the planning commission and the county board to inform relator “of the reason for [denial] and what requirements will be necessary to meet the approval of the Planning Commission” and the county board. Becker County Subdivision Ordinance § 4, subd. A(1). Based on the record before us, the board communicated to relator its concerns that the proposed preliminary plat failed to comply with the minimum lot-size requirement under the zoning ordinance for an agricultural district.
4. “Land Suitability” section
Finally, relator argues that the Land Suitability section of the Becker County Subdivision Ordinance § 1, subd. 8, is too vague and general to be enforceable. In support of his proposition, he relies again on this court’s reasoning in PTL. In PTL, this court determined that the portion of the Chisago County Subdivision Ordinance that the county board relied on in denying a preliminary plat was a general statement of purpose that did not set forth clear and objective standards for a developer to follow in attaining preliminary-plat approval. PTL, 656 N.W.2d at 572. The relevant portions of the ordinance in that case stated that the purposes of the subdivision ordinance included to “[e]ncourage well-planned, efficient, and attractive subdivisions” and to protect and promote compatible land uses. Id. (citation omitted).
In this case, the relevant portion of the Becker County Subdivision Ordinance states:
Each lot created through subdivision, including planned unit developments, must be suitable in its natural state for the proposed use with minimal alteration. Suitability analysis shall consider susceptibility to flooding, existence of wetlands, soil and rock formations with severe limitations for development, severe erosion potential, steep topography, inadequate water supply or sewage treatment capabilities, near-shore aquatic conditions unsuitable for water-based recreation, important fish and wildlife habitat, presence of significant historic sites, or any other feature of the natural land likely to be harmful to the health, safety, or welfare of future residents of the proposed subdivision or County.
Becker County Subdivision Ordinance § 1, subd. 8. This section of the ordinance is not the general statement of purpose that this court found existed in PTL. Here, the subdivision contains a separate “purpose and intent” subdivision, which includes general language that the ordinance is enacted “to safeguard the best interests of Becker County; . . . to prevent piecemeal planning of subdivision, undesirable, disconnected patchwork of pattern, and poor circulation of traffic; [and] to correlate land subdivision with the County Comprehensive Plan.” Id. at subd. 2. This general statement of purpose is not analogous to those portions of the Chisago County Subdivision Ordinance that this court analyzed in PTL.
Although the EAW review committee recommended that the Land Suitability section of the ordinance be reviewed, on the record before us we cannot conclude that the county relied solely on this section of the ordinance when it denied approval of relator’s preliminary plat. The Becker County Subdivision Ordinance sets forth specific design standards regarding lots:
The minimum lot area, lot width, and lot depth shall conform to the requirements of the Zoning District in which the plat is situated as required by the Becker County Zoning Ordinance.
Id. at § 3, subd. 2A. In light of the zoning ordinance, a developer in an agricultural district must design each lot to be no less than 2.5 acres. Therefore, because relator’s proposed development contains lots smaller than 2.5 acres, relator has not complied with the ordinance’s minimum standards required for preliminary plat approval. The board’s decision to deny preliminary plat approval was not legally insufficient.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.