City of Freeman v. Salis

Decision Date27 June 2001
Docket Number No. 21738., No. 21640
Citation2001 SD 84,630 N.W.2d 699
PartiesCITY OF FREEMAN, A Municipal Corporation under the Laws of the State of South Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Richard A. SALIS and Barbara L. Salis, Defendants and Appellees.
CourtSouth Dakota Supreme Court

Dale L. Strasser, Freeman, SD, Michael J. Schaffer of Davenport, Evans, Hurwitz and Smith, Sioux Falls, for plaintiff and appellant.

Kent E. Lehr, Scotland, for defendants and appellees.


[¶ 1.] The circuit court dismissed a municipal petition for condemnation, ruling that the city council acted in bad faith and abused its discretion in resolving to condemn private property. Because the challenged conduct in this case cannot be classed as an abuse of discretion or bad faith under SDCL 21-35-10.1, we reverse the dismissal and order reinstatement of the condemnation action.


[¶ 2.] Richard and Barbara Salis own a home in Freeman, South Dakota. In 1996, they paid $1000 for a strip of railroad property adjoining their lot. This three and one-third acre corridor is approximately 100 feet wide and 1300 feet long. It lies north of the Salis home, and its trees form a windbreak. For the Salises, "there's a lot of enjoyment in [the strip] because of the ... wildlife" and the esthetic vista the trees afford. Running through a section of the strip is a ditch that serves the drainage flow from western Freeman.

[¶ 3.] In the spring of 1997, following a heavy winter snowfall, Freeman experienced substantial flooding. The City hired Vern Arens, a licensed professional engineer, to perform a surface water drainage study. He concluded that the drainage channel on the Salises' strip needed improvement. Water backed up causing flooding because "trees and shrubs that [are] on the [strip] itself right now [are] a hindrance to the transgressional flow of run-off through the property itself."

[¶ 4.] With the engineer's recommendation, the City negotiated with the Salises to clear the drainage ditch of trees and shrubs. Not wanting the City to "clear-cut" the property, the Salises sought to preserve the wildlife and vegetation as much as possible. Their negotiations resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding.1 The city attorney drafted the document, and the parties signed it on June 15, 1998. For approximately a year afterwards, the City did nothing.

[¶ 5.] In September 1999, a Freeman employee arrived in a payloader with an eight-foot bucket to begin work. His assignment was to "clean the ditch out, anything in the ditch and anything overhanging the ditch into the ditch that was going to hit the loader...." City authorities concede that they did not tell their employee about the specific terms of the Memorandum. Nor did they notify the Salises before beginning the work. Richard Salis became aware of the City's action when his wife told him that she heard branches breaking. He went outside to investigate and saw that the payloader had destroyed trees that he believed were protected under the terms of the Memorandum. He demanded that the employee stop. Since that time, the City has made no further attempts to clear the drainage ditch. Brief negotiations followed.

[¶ 6.] The Salises insisted that the City breached the Memorandum and demanded compensation. In the course of negotiations, they offered to lease the strip of land to the City for twenty-five years for a fee of $35,000. The City rejected a lease, but offered to replace two trees. The Salises found that offer unacceptable. The City then offered to purchase the land for $3000. The Salises responded that they would accept $3000 as damages, would negotiate to clarify the terms of the Memorandum, and would submit the dispute to a mediator. After this, the council passed a resolution of necessity for condemnation. According to the mayor, the City "[did] not want to be here every other year or every third year discussing the Memorandum of Understanding" or "take the risk of being liable for past and possibly future damages." The council's resolution for condemnation set aside $3000 for acquisition costs and sought only to take approximately so much of the property as the drainage ditch ran through.

[¶ 7.] In response to the City's condemnation petition, the Salises answered and counterclaimed for damages. They challenged the City's right to condemn. Following a hearing, the circuit court found that in passing its resolution of necessity, the City acted in bad faith and abused its discretion under SDCL 21-35-10.1. The judge wrote:

This court finds it offensive that the city can enter into an agreement, fail to live up to the agreement, and then arbitrarily condemn the property. The city demonstrated it was operating in bad faith when it negotiated the agreement, bad faith when it cleared out the ditch and bad faith when it condemned the Salis property.

The court dismissed the petition for condemnation. The City appeals.


[¶ 8.] Before addressing the substantive issues, we must set the standard of review. We have not addressed the standard before, and there exists some confusion in the law on the proper scope of review for condemnation appeals. See Dep't of the Interior v. 16.03 Acres of Land, 26 F.3d 349, 355 (2nd Cir.1994)

. A standard deferential to municipal police power seems consistent with the wide discretion afforded to condemning authorities. See SDCL 21-35-10.1. The power of eminent domain embodies an aspect of sovereignty as an "offspring of political necessity." Bauman v. Ross, 167 U.S. 548, 574, 17 S.Ct. 966, 976, 42 L.Ed. 270 (1897); United States v. Gettysburg Electric Ry. Co., 160 U.S. 668, 681-82, 16 S.Ct. 427, 429-30, 40 L.Ed. 576 (1896).2 Many federal courts apply an arbitrary and capricious standard in these cases. See 16.03 Acres of Land,

26 F.3d at 355. Likewise, we have long held that in municipal decision making, the scope of review is limited to whether a city acted unreasonably and arbitrarily. Evans v. King, 57 S.D. 109, 230 N.W. 848, 849 (1930); Ericksen v. City of Sioux Falls, 70 S.D. 40, 53, 14 N.W.2d 89, 95 (1944). We believe this standard is mandated by the separation of powers doctrine guiding judicial review of government actions. City of Mobridge v. Brown, 39 S.D. 270, 164 N.W. 94, 94-95 (1917); see Foss v. Spitznagel, 77 S.D. 633, 644, 97 N.W.2d 856, 862 (1959).

[¶ 9.] A city's resolution of necessity is a governmental policy decision entitled to substantial deference. See generally, 2 Childress and Davis, Federal Standards of Review § 17.04 (discussing the highly deferential review of policy decisions). Consequently, the City of Freeman's decision should be reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. On the other hand, we review the circuit court's decision de novo without any presumption that its ultimate ruling was correct. Filing by GCC License Corp. For Designation as an Eligible Telecomm. Carrier, 2001 SD 32, ¶ 8, 623 N.W.2d 474, 479 (citations omitted); see also City of Jamestown v. Leevers Supermarkets, Inc., 552 N.W.2d 365, 370 (N.D.1996)

.3 Of course, the circuit court's factual findings are examined under the clearly erroneous standard. GCC License Corp., 2001 SD 32, ¶ 8, 623 N.W.2d at 479.


[¶ 10.] Our law vests municipalities with broad authority in deciding when the taking of property is necessary for public purposes. See Basin Electric Power Coop. v. Payne, 298 N.W.2d 385, 386 (S.D.1980)

(citations omitted). Necessity is not a judicial question: a city's decision to condemn is binding absent fraud, bad faith, or an abuse of discretion. See SDCL 21-35-10.1. See also 11 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations 351-353 (3d ed. 2000)(describing the general rule). Challengers shoulder the burden of proving abuse or bad faith and overcoming the strong presumption that the condemnor acted lawfully. Id. at 357; In re Condemnation of Property of Waite, 163 Pa.Cmwlth. 283, 641 A.2d 25, 28 (1994) (citations omitted). In reviewing the Salises' allegations of bad faith and abuse of discretion, we consider all relevant conditions existing at the time of the resolution of necessity. Sullivan v. City of Ulysses, 23 Kan.App.2d 502, 932 P.2d 456, 457 (1997) (citations omitted).

[¶ 11.] We have yet to examine the concept of bad faith in the context of condemnation proceedings under SDCL 21-35-10.1. The circuit court defined it as "that which imports a dishonest purpose and implies some wrongdoing or some motive of self interest." Although this definition is accurate for some contexts, it is inadequate as applied to a condemning authority in the exercise of its power of eminent domain. In similar proceedings, bad faith has been more sharply defined as conscious wrongdoing motivated by improper interest, ill will, or dishonest intent. City of Atlanta v. First Nat'l Bank of Atlanta, 246 Ga. 424, 271 S.E.2d 821, 822 (1980)(footnoted information omitted).

[¶ 12.] Courts may not lightly attribute improper motives to cities and their council members where valid reasons exist to support condemnation. Pheasant Ridge Associates Ltd. Partnership v. Burlington, 399 Mass. 771, 506 N.E.2d 1152, 1156 (1987). A municipality acts in bad faith when it condemns land for a private scheme or for an improper reason, though the superficially stated purpose purports to be valid. Id. at 1156. In most instances, of course, this type of bad faith must be shown by circumstantial evidence. Some signifiers include absence of prior interest in the site, failure to act in conformity with usual practices, and indications of intent to use the property for purposes not cited in the resolution. Id. at 1157.

[¶ 13.] Even accepting the circuit court's factual findings unreservedly, we still cannot hold that the City's actions constituted bad faith under SDCL 21-35-10.1. The court based its ruling on the following: breaching the Memorandum, failing to inform the employee of the Memorandum's terms, waiting a year...

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