This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).






Dennis Winkelman, et al.,





County of Stearns,


Filed April 17, 2007


Randall, Judge


Stearns County District Court

File No. C4-05-4483


Paul A. Jeddeloh, Gwen M. Anderson, Jeddeloh & Snyder, P.A., 803 West St. Germain Street, St. Cloud, MN 56301 (for appellants)


Thomas P. Carlson, Carlson & Soldo, P.L.L.P., 1052 Centerville Circle, Vadnais Heights, MN 55127 (for respondent) 


            Considered and decided by Hudson, Presiding Judge; Randall, Judge; and Wright, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N 



On appeal from a summary judgment for respondent-county in a declaratory judgment action in which appellants asked the district court to rule certain provisions of the county’s amended zoning ordinance unconstitutionally vague and subjective, and lacking a rational basis, appellants challenge the district court’s refusal to do so. 

We conclude a reading of the ordinance in its entirety provides an adequate understanding of its intention.  We affirm.


            Appellants Dennis Winkelman and Brigid Murphy co-own approximately 37 acres of real property located in Agricultural District A-40 in Stearns County.  The land is subject to the county zoning ordinance.  Appellants applied for a construction permit to build a single-family dwelling but were denied by Stearns County Environmental Services Department.  The property, subject to zoning ordinance 209, section 7.29, was found to have a Land Evaluation Site Assessment (LESA) score of 77.91, thereby requiring a conditional-use permit (CUP).  Stearns County Environmental Services informed appellants of the need for a CUP.  Appellants submitted an application for a CUP to build a single-family residence on the northwest corner of the property.

            The county denied the CUP as requested but granted a permit on the condition that appellants build the house on the property’s northeast corner.  Appellants appealed the county’s CUP denial to the Minnesota Court of Appeals[1] and filed an appeal in Stearns County District Court challenging the constitutionality of the zoning ordinance.  The district court granted summary judgment for the county.


            Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact such that either party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03.  The court decides questions of law only where, as here, the material facts are undisputed.  Lowry Hill Properties, Inc. v. Ashbach Const. Co., 291 Minn. 429, 440 n.1, 194 N.W.2d 767, 774 n.1 (1971). 

            “The constitutionality of an ordinance is a question of law” which this court reviews de novo.  State v. Castellano, 506 N.W.2d 641, 644 (Minn. App. 1993) (citations omitted).  A municipal ordinance is presumed constitutional.  City of St. Paul v. Dalsin, 245 Minn. 325, 329, 71 N.W.2d 855, 858 (1955).  An ordinance will not be declared void for vagueness unless it “is so uncertain and indefinite that after exhausting all rules of construction it is impossible to ascertain legislative intent.”  Contos v. Herbst, 278 N.W.2d 732, 746 (Minn. 1979).  A statute is void for vagueness if it “defines an act in a manner that encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” or the law is so indefinite that reasonable people “must guess at its meaning.”  Humenansky v. Minn. Bd. of Med. Exam’rs, 525 N.W.2d 559, 564 (Minn. App. 1994) (citations omitted), review denied (Minn. Feb. 14, 1995).  Due process standards of indefiniteness require that persons of common intelligence not be left to guess at the meaning of a law, nor differ as to its application.  Connally v. Gen. Constr. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391, 46 S. Ct. 126, 127 (1925); State v. Newstrom, 371 N.W.2d 525, 528 (Minn. 1985).

            Appellants argue that the ordinance is void for vagueness because it is internally inconsistent and subjective.  The district court found the ordinance constitutional, stating that “several provisions of the Ordinance clearly direct the reader back to the performance standards and the LESA score requirements.  Therefore, all provisions of the Ordinance must be read in concert. . . .”

            Using general language in a statute does not make it vague.  State v. Christie, 506 N.W.2d 293, 301 (Minn. 1993).  A law should not be invalidated as vague merely because it is possible to imagine difficulty in determining whether certain marginal fact situations fall within its language.  United States v. Nat’l Dairy Prods. Corp., 372 U.S. 29, 32, 83 S. Ct. 594, 597 (1963); Humenansky, 525 N.W.2d at 564.

            Beginning with section 9 of Stearns County Zoning Ordinance 209, Agricultural District A-40, the ordinance directs a reader to the applicable sections.    Appellants property is undisputedly located in an A-40 district, and therefore, section 9.3 applies.  The stated purpose of the A-40 district is preservation of agricultural and rural character; however, construction of a single-family dwelling is a permitted use.[2]  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 §§ 9.3.1, 9.3.2 (2000).   All permitted uses within the A-40 district are specifically subject to “any applicable performance and general development standards contained in sections 6 and 7 of this Ordinance.”  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 § 9.3.2.  Section 7 applies to “all structures and land uses.”  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 § 7.0 (2000).  Section 7.29, specifically applicable to A-40 districts, is of importance here.  It provides that if a property’s LESA score equals or exceeds 65, a “residential dwelling may be allowed, pursuant to section 4.8.”  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 § 7.29 (2000).  Section 4.8, entitled “conditional use,” states that “[a] conditional use permit shall be required in the following instances:  A.  Proposed uses.  Only those uses listed as conditional uses within the applicable primary district or overlay district may be allowed through issuance of a conditional use permit.”  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 § 4.8 (2000). 

            Appellants argue that a property owner reading the ordinance cannot discern whether to apply for a building permit or a CUP.  Constructing a single-family dwelling is a permitted use under section 9.3.2 but section 4.8, requiring a CUP in certain circumstances, is silent as to permitted uses.  Section 4.8 addresses only conditional uses.  A single-family dwelling is not listed in “the applicable primary district,” the A-40 district, as a conditional use; it is only listed as a permitted use. 

            Yes, the ordinance could be improved.  We, like the district court, suggest the county clarify the zoning ordinance by either (1) adding single-family dwellings in the A-40 district with LESA scores of higher than 65 to the list of conditional uses in section 9.3.5, or (2) modifying section 4.8 to include both conditional and permitted uses.  Creating and adopting good zoning ordinances are jobs for the municipality.  See Odell v. City of Eagan, 348 N.W.2d 792, 796 (Minn. App. 1984) (“A municipality has broad discretion in zoning matters, particularly in enacting a zoning ordinance or rezoning.”).  

            When all relevant provisions are read together, the ordinance is not vague.  As previously laid out, the ordinance cross-references and directs a reader to and through the relevant sections and subsections.  The district court acknowledged the clarity provided by cross referencing:  “[a]ny lack of clarity caused by the omission in Section 9.3.5 of ‘residential dwellings in Agricultural District 40 [et al.] with LESA scores higher than 65’ from the list of conditional uses, does not render the ordinance unconstitutionally vague, where, as here several cross references adequately clarify the point.”  Because of the presumption of constitutionality, which is reinforced by reading the relevant provisions as a whole, the ordinance is not unconstitutionally vague.  See Contos, 278 N.W.2d at 746. 

            Appellants argue that determining a LESA score is complex, subjective, and arbitrary.  Appellants disagree with the rating system because county employees are responsible for calculating a property’s LESA score and therefore, the zoning of any particular property requiring a LESA score.  The district court found that “the very purpose of the LESA score is to discourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”  The LESA system is a tool assisting decision makers in accomplishing the county’s goal of promoting “agricultural preservation” and management of “non-farm rural residential development.”  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 Appendix A (2000).  The county designed the numeric rating system “specifically to assess where the best farmlands are located locally.”  Id.  The system identifies specific factors for consideration, divides the factors into subparts, and assigns maximum point values for each subpart.  Id.  Contrary to appellants’ belief, the LESA system is objective, organized, and clearly identifies the criteria considered in reaching a property’s LESA score.

            Appellants argue that the zoning ordinance, in requiring the determination of a LESA score, permits the county to circumvent rezoning requirements by causing a permitted use to become a conditional use.  “[I]t is not the function of the courts to interfere with the legislative discretion on [zoning matters].”  State ex rel. Howard v. Village of Roseville, 244 Minn. 343, 348, 70 N.W.2d 404, 407 (Minn. 1955).  A county’s zoning authority includes the right to promote the most appropriate use of the land.  Connor v. Township of Chanhassen, 249 Minn. 205, 213, 81 N.W.2d 789, 796 (Minn. 1957).  Given a municipality’s broad discretion in zoning matters and the stated purpose of the ordinance, which was previously found to be “rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose,” the ordinance is valid.  See Odell, 348 N.W.2d at 797 (“A municipality has broad discretion in zoning matters, particularly in enacting a zoning ordinance or rezoning.”).  

            Appellants contend that the ordinance should be construed in favor of the landowner.  Normally, this is an argument made when challenging the interpretation of an ordinance.  See Frank’s Nursery Sales, Inc. v. City of Roseville, 295 N.W.2d 604, 608-09 (Minn. 1980).  Appellants’ assertion is that the ordinance is void for vagueness.  If they are correct, there is no need to interpret it for either side; it falls. 

            Appellants argue that the ordinance fails to effectuate its (alleged) underlying policy.  Appellants assert that granting a building permit, as requested, would have been consistent with the policy established in section 9.3.1 of approving single-family dwellings within the A-40 district. 

            The district court concluded that “Stearns County Ordinance 209 is rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose and is related to promoting the public health, safety, moral or general welfare and is therefore valid.”  The A-40 District seeks to preserve the agricultural and rural character of its land, as does the LESA system.  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 § 9.3.1, Appendix A.  These goals, along with those listed in section 7.0, including preserving the use and enjoyment of property, encouraging a high standard of development, and protecting the public health, safety, and welfare, are rationally related to the county’s zoning activities.  See Minn. Stat. § 394.21 (2006) (stating that counties have authority to carry out planning and zoning activities).



[1] This court affirmed the Stearns County CUP conditioned on appellants building the single-family dwelling in the northeast corner of the property.  Winkelman v. Stearns County, No. A05-1912, 2006 WL 2474564, at *5 (Minn. App. Aug. 29, 2006).  The court found the county’s condition to be reasonable and supported by the record.  Id.

[2] “Permitted use” is defined as “[a] use which may be lawfully established in a particular district or districts, provided it conforms with all requirements and performance standards (if any) of such district.”  Stearns County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance 209 § 3.2.134 (2005).