MacDonald v. Village of Northport, Mich.

Decision Date11 January 1999
Docket NumberNo. 97-1373,97-1373
Citation164 F.3d 964
PartiesJohn D. MACDONALD and Patricia MacDonald, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. The VILLAGE OF NORTHPORT, MICHIGAN, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Paul D. Fox (argued and briefed), Grand Rapids, Michigan, for Appellants.

James I. Sullivan (argued and briefed), Eric H. Findlay, Jeffrey J. Noorman (briefed), Sullivan, Crowley & Beeby, Traverse City, Michigan for Village of Northport.

James R. Piggush (argued and briefed), James E. Riley, Office of the Attorney General, Natural Resources Division, Lansing, Michigan, for Douglas B. Roberts.

Wendy A. Spickard, Consumers Power Company, Jackson, MI, for Consumers Power Company.

Before: RYAN, CLAY, and OAKES, * Circuit Judges.

OAKES, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which CLAY, J., joined. RYAN, J. (p. 973), delivered a separate concurring opinion.


OAKES, Circuit Judge.


The MacDonalds appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan (Bell, Judge), dismissing their action to amend a plat to remove a public access road that runs along their land.

This appeal presents the question whether the district court properly dismissed an action by homeowners against several defendants, including a Michigan village and the Michigan State Treasurer, relating to the ownership and land use of a portion of a platted street. Because Michigan law provides a regulatory scheme to address disputes relating to land use, the district court properly abstained from deciding the case. In addition, the Eleventh Amendment barred the suit. We therefore affirm.


John and Patricia MacDonald reside in Ohio and own a summer home in Northport, Michigan. Part of the platted street adjacent to the MacDonalds' Northport property provides public access to the Grant Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan; the parties refer to this access as the "7th Street right-of-way" or the "road-end access." The MacDonalds claim that the public use of the 7th Street right-of-way interferes with their enjoyment of their property.

The MacDonalds sued the Village of Northport and other defendants, including the State Treasurer, on several grounds relating to the ownership and use of the 7th Street right-of-way. In Count I of their complaint, the MacDonalds asked the court to vacate the 7th Street right-of-way adjacent to their property, and to amend the plat. Because this remedy implicated the public interest relating to land division, public roads, and public access to navigable and public trust waters, the MacDonalds were required by statute to join various state officials as defendants. 1

The other two counts sought relief from the Village of Northport and did not directly implicate the state defendants. Count II alleged that the Village had "taken" the MacDonalds' property without just compensation, and that the MacDonalds were damaged, by the loss of their quiet enjoyment of their property and by the diminution of its value, in an amount over $50,000. Count III sought an order that the 7th Street right-of-way not be used as a public beach and that the village cease "tolerat[ing] such uses."

In an oral opinion, the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan (Bell, Judge) held that the presence of a comprehensive state regulatory scheme involving state land use law required abstention under Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424 (1943), and its progeny. The court also found that the Eleventh Amendment required dismissal because the State was a necessary party and was immune from suit. The court concluded that the Burford doctrine and the Eleventh Amendment, "both as separate and distinct grounds, but clearly grounds together," gave the court "insufficient jurisdiction." Accordingly, the court dismissed the case.

A. Burford Abstention

Under the Burford doctrine, federal courts abstain from deciding cases when there is a need to defer to complex state administrative procedures. In Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 317-318, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424 (1943), the Sun Oil Company challenged the Texas Railroad Commission's grant of an oil drilling permit. The Supreme Court held that abstention was necessary in order to defer to the complicated regulatory system established under Texas law in furtherance of that state's interest in conserving its oil and gas resources. See id. at 325-32, 63 S.Ct. 1098. The Court emphasized that Texas law consolidated judicial review of commission orders in one state district court, which enabled that court to acquire a specialized knowledge of the oil and gas regulations and industry, and ensured uniformity in the regulation of the oil industry. See id. at 327, 63 S.Ct. 1098. The Court also noted that the Texas courts "can give fully as great relief ... as the federal courts" and that "[d]elay, misunderstanding of local law, and needless federal conflict with state policy, are the inevitable product of this double system of review." Id.

In New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of the City of New Orleans, ("NOPSI ") 491 U.S. 350, 109 S.Ct. 2506, 105 L.Ed.2d 298 (1989), the Supreme Court described Burford abstention as appropriate in two instances:

Where timely and adequate state-court review is available, a federal court sitting in equity must decline to interfere with the proceedings or orders of state administrative agencies: (1) when there are "difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result in the case then at bar"; or (2) where the "exercise of federal review of the question in a case and in similar cases would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern."

Id. at 361, 109 S.Ct. 2506 (quoting Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 814, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976)).

It is against this backdrop that we must determine whether the district court erred by abstaining under the Burford doctrine. The MacDonalds argue that abstention was improper because Michigan has not created a specialized forum for deciding this kind of case. The State of Michigan and the Village of Northport counter that abstention was necessary because issues of land use and zoning are purely local disputes and there are no federal questions. We review the district court's abstention de novo. See Traughber v. Beauchane, 760 F.2d 673, 676 (6th Cir.1985) ("Because theories of state and federal law, and expressions of federalism and comity, are so interrelated in the decision to abstain such dispositions are elevated to a level of importance dictating de novo appellate review."). We begin with the fundamental proposition that abstention is a limited exception to the "virtually unflagging" obligation of federal courts to exercise the jurisdiction given them. Colorado River Water Conservation Dist., 424 U.S. at 813 & 817, 96 S.Ct. 1236.

As noted above, NOPSI authorizes federal district courts to consider abstaining when "timely and adequate state-court review is available." NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 361, 109 S.Ct. 2506. This condition is satisfied here, as Michigan law specifically directs parties who seek to amend or revise a plat to file a complaint in the circuit court. See note 1. We therefore consider whether abstention was justified under either of the two rationales articulated in NOPSI.

An opinion by the district court vacating the 7th Street right-of-way would have impaired the public's ability to reach the Grand Traverse Bay, which is a matter of " 'substantial public concern.' " NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 361, 109 S.Ct. 2506 (quoting Colorado River Water Conservation Dist., 424 U.S. at 814, 96 S.Ct. 1236). See Mich. Const. art. IV, § 52 ("The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people. The legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction."); Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 324.32702(c) ("The waters of the state are valuable public natural resources held in trust by the state, and the state has a duty as trustee to manage its waters effectively for the use and enjoyment of present and future residents and for the protection of the environment."); id. at (d) ("The waters of the Great Lakes basin are a valuable public natural resource, and the states and provinces of the Great Lakes region and Michigan share a common interest in the preservation of that resource.").

Furthermore, the Michigan Land Division Act provides a particular procedure to govern lawsuits and plat changes, stating that "[t]o vacate, correct, or revise a recorded plat or any part of it, a complaint shall be filed in the circuit court by the owner of a lot in the subdivision, a person of record claiming under the owner or the governing body of the municipality in which the subdivision covered by the plat is located." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 560.222.

The act also obliges the state to be involved in such actions by requiring the joinder of the state treasurer, the director of the department of natural resources, and the township. See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 560.224a(1)(c) & (g). That section further provides in part that "The department of natural resources and, if applicable, the township shall review the application and determine within 30 days whether the property should be retained by the state or township as an ingress or egress point, and shall convey that decision to the court." Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 560.224a(1)(g).

Finally, should the state proceedings initiated under the Land Division Act result in any change to a platted street...

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