This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).




Center for Endangered Cats, et al.,



Forest Lake Township,


Filed April 20, 1999

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded

Crippen, Judge

Washington County District Court

File No. C19899

Marshall H. Tanick, Daniel R. Kelly, Teresa J. Ayling, Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, P.A., Suite 1560, 900 Second Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55402-3383 (for appellants)

Allison C. Swanson, Pierre N. Regnier, Jardine, Logan & O'Brien, P.L.L.P., 2100 Piper Jaffray Plaza, 444 Cedar Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2160 (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Crippen, Presiding Judge, Amundson, Judge, and Anderson, Judge.



Appellants challenge the trial court's determination that a local zoning ordinance prevents them from operating a facility that houses exotic cats. Appellants argue that the facility is permitted under the ordinance and alternately, that the township acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying them a conditional use permit. We affirm the denial of the conditional use permit and reverse and remand the trial court's decision that a facility to train exotic cats is not a permitted use, directing further fact-finding as to whether the facility is primarily a commercial animal training facility.


Appellants own and operate the Center for Endangered Cats, a for-profit provider of exotic cats, such as tigers, leopards, and cougars, for educational and entertainment purposes. The cats appear at or in lectures, theme parks, sports shows, and television programs. The number of cats housed at the Center fluctuates, and at times as many as 25 animals have been on the premises. The Center has existed since 1989, but in 1996 it was moved from Hugo, Minnesota, to a rural, agriculturally-zoned part of respondent Forest Lake Township.

Appellants thought the Center was a permitted use under the township zoning ordinance, but the township disagreed and notified appellants that they would have to apply for a conditional use permit available for a nature center.[1] Appellants did so. After the township denied the Center a conditional use permit, appellants brought suit seeking a declaratory judgment--incidentally to determine that the Center was entitled to a conditional use permit, but primarily to determine that the Center was a permitted use. Appellants argued that the Center was a facility for "Animals--Commercial Training," a permitted use in an A-1 (agricultural) zone under the local ordinance. Upon cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court affirmed the denial of the conditional use permit and held that appellants' operation is not a permitted animal training center as defined in the ordinance.


The interpretation of an existing ordinance is a question of law. Frank's Nursery Sales, Inc. v. City of Roseville, 295 N.W.2d 604, 608 (Minn. 1980). This court reviews questions of law de novo. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass'n v. Minnesota Pub. Utils. Comm'n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn. 1984).

1. Interpretation of the Zoning Ordinance

Appellants contend that the trial court misinterpreted the zoning ordinance. Under the ordinance, "Animals--Commercial Training" is a permitted use in an area zoned Agricultural, A-1. Forest Lake, Minn., Zoning Ordinance § 604 (June 7, 1982). Although the ordinance does not define or limit the term "Animals--Commercial Training," the court reasoned that because the "Definitions" section of the ordinance only defined two types of animals, domestic farm animals and domestic pets, the term "Animals--Commercial Training" did not include training centers for other types of animals, such as exotic cats.[2]

The trial court's interpretation of the ordinance no doubt matches the general intent of the ordinance to "promote the public health, safety and general welfare." Forest Lake, Minn., Zoning Ordinance § 201 (June 7, 1982). But the ordinance contains no language restricting the use maintained by appellants.[3] Although the ordinance does define domestic animals, it does not define animals so as to exclude wild animals. See Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (1998) (providing that "[w]hen the words of a law in their application to an existing situation are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit"); Frank's Nursery, 295 N.W.2d at 608 (noting that zoning ordinances should be construed strictly against the city and in favor of the property owner). Therefore, we reverse the trial court's determination that a facility to train exotic cats is not a permitted use under the township's zoning ordinance.

But whether the Center is primarily a training facility is an unresolved question of fact. Appellants contend that there is no dispute that the Center is a commercial animal training facility. To the contrary, while both the trial court and respondent noted that some training of cats occurs at the Center, there is presently no conclusive evidence that training is anything more than a minimal part of the operation.[4]

If training is only an accessory use, albeit a permitted accessory use, the Center may still violate the zoning ordinance because the primary or principal use of a parcel is controlling in determining its character for zoning purposes. See City of Minneapolis v. Church Universal & Triumphant, 339 N.W.2d 880, 887-89 (Minn. 1983) (holding that an accessory use monastery, which would be impermissible if a primary use, is permissible because primary use of property as a church was permissible); Frank's Nursery, 295 N.W.2d at 608 (holding that "the term `lawn and garden' center itself does not seem to exclude stores that primarily sell horticultural items but sell some other items as well"); NBZ Enters., Inc. v. City of Shakopee, 489 N.W.2d 531, 536 (Minn. App. 1992) (holding that alleged accessory use impermissible where primary use required a conditional use permit), review denied (Minn. Sept. 30, 1992); see also Forest Lake, Minn., Zoning Ordinance § 301 (135) (June 7, 1982) (defining "principal structure or use" as "[o]ne which determines the predominant use as contrasted to accessory use or structure").

The trial court was presented the question of whether the Center was a training facility. Because the court interpreted the ordinance in such a way as to prohibit animal training centers for any non-domestic animals, it never reached this factual question. Therefore we remand for production of evidence and a finding of fact as to whether the Center is primarily a training facility or whether it is primarily a facility to board animals, to raise them, or to fulfill some other object.[5]

2. Conditional Use Permit

Appellants also contend the township acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying the Center a conditional use permit. Land use decisions are entitled to great deference and will be disturbed on appeal only in instances where the municipality's decision has no rational basis. Swanson v. City of Bloomington, 421 N.W.2d 307, 311 (Minn. 1988); see also Carl Bolander & Sons Co. v. City of Minneapolis, 502 N.W.2d 203, 207 (Minn. 1993) (noting standard of review for governmental decisions is whether they were arbitrary or capricious). In a zoning action, this court reviews directly the proceedings before the zoning authority, not the trial court's findings. Id. The permit applicant has the burden of persuading the appellate court that the reasons for the denial either are legally insufficient or are not supported by the record. Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc. v. City of Afton, 323 N.W.2d 757, 763 (Minn. 1982).

The township denied appellants a conditional use permit because the use of the property to house wild animals "would not protect the health, safety or general welfare of the residents of the Township." Appellants argue the township acted arbitrarily because it denied appellants a permit based "wholly on unsubstantiated and unverified safety fears" and "the truism the wildcats can injure someone if they escape."

Appellants correctly note that the township's concerns must be based on more than conjecture or speculation. See C.R. Invs., Inc. v. Village of Shoreview, 304 N.W.2d 320, 325 (Minn. 1981). But appellants are mistaken in trying to minimize the threat posed by these cats by calling it a "truism." There was evidence before the township Board of Supervisors that (1) wild cats in general are dangerous, (2) the cats at the Center are dangerous, (3) the cats at the Center have escaped their cages and restraints or were allowed to run loose, and (4) the security features at the Center might not be adequate. Given this evidence, the township had a rational basis for denying the Center a conditional use permit.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

[1] The category of conditional use considered by the parties viewed the Center as a "Nature Center"--classified as requiring a conditional use permit in an agricultural zone. But, as the trial court stated, "[t]he Center is not a `nature center' as the term is commonly understood to mean." Nevertheless, the court conceded that classification so that it could deliberate on whether a conditional use permit should be granted.

[2] The trial court also noted that a center for exotic animals involved safety considerations like those that were otherwise regulated under the ordinance. For example, archery and gun ranges, waste disposal areas, kennels, feed lots, and use of flammable gasses and liquids or explosives all require a permit if established or carried out in an A-1 zone.

[3]As appellants observe, other local municipalities--including Blaine, Bloomington, Minneapolis, and Robbinsdale--have specifically prohibited ownership or possession of wild or exotic animals.

[4] Appellants initially presented the Center to the township as a facility for the "housing and breeding" of cats. Only during pre-trial discovery did they testify that they trained cats at the facility. Appellants described the training as teaching the cats to walk on a leash, to jump and climb, and to get in and out of travel crates. Based on these statements, the trial court noted that the Center is a "facility used to house and train wild animals," but the court never made a determination about whether the Center is a commercial animal training facility. In its motion for summary judgment, the township did concede that the Center "operates a for profit business training wild and dangerous cats." But the township recanted this position in its summary judgment reply brief, arguing that as either a matter of fact or law the Center was not a facility for "Animals--Commercial Training."

[5] Respondent argues that if remand is necessary, the township should make a finding of fact whether the Center is a permitted training facility before the district court does so. In support of this argument, the township cited Frank's Nursery, which does state that "where the question is whether an ordinance is applicable to certain facts, the determination of those facts is for the governmental authority." Id. at 608. But this statement was made in the context of discussing the standard of review when a trial court is reviewing municipal decision making. See id. Contrary to respondent's argument, a party need not get a municipal decision ratifying a party's contention that a particular use is a permitted use. Rather, these issues, should they arise, are dealt with through civil or criminal proceedings. See, e.g., Stillwater Township v. Rivard, 547 N.W.2d 906 (Minn. App. 1996) (property owners operated business on their property; city brought both criminal and civil suits to stop alleged zoning violations; remanded to trial court for fact finding as to the nature and volume of business activities occurring on property).