Neuzil v. City of Iowa City, 88-953

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation451 N.W.2d 159
Docket NumberNo. 88-953,88-953
PartiesElla M. NEUZIL, Gregory B. Neuzil, and Carol F. Neuzil, Appellants, v. CITY OF IOWA CITY, Iowa, Appellee.
Decision Date24 January 1990

William L. Meardon of Meardon, Sueppel, Downer & Hayes, Iowa City, for appellants.

Richard J. Boyle, Asst. City Atty., for appellee.


LAVORATO, Justice.

In this law action, the district court concluded a zoning amendment that downzoned undeveloped property was valid. The property owners appealed. We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which reversed. Because we think the district court was right, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the judgment of the district court.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The Neuzil family owns an eight and one-half acre tract of land (tract) southwest of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. They have owned the tract since 1941. Mrs. Ella Neuzil and a son Gregory occupy houses on the tract. There also is a rental house there, but the remainder of the tract is undeveloped.

Originally the tract was part of University Heights, a municipality immediately west of Iowa City. But in 1956 Iowa City annexed the tract. The tract is shown in the following exhibit.


In 1962 Iowa City adopted a comprehensive zoning plan known as the Bartholomew Plan. Under the plan the tract was zoned R-3A. The R-3A zoning allowed multi-family dwellings and permitted up to forty-four units per acre.

In 1972 the tract was rezoned from R-3A to R-3. The R-3 zoning also allowed multi-family dwellings but limited the number of units per acre to fourteen.

In 1978 Iowa City adopted a new comprehensive plan. In adopting this plan the city passed the following resolution:

Whereas, the 1962 Comprehensive Plan may no longer reflect present conditions in Iowa City or its goals and policies, and

Whereas the Comprehensive Plan Coordinating Committee has held public meetings, studied community needs and drafted a new Comprehensive Plan which states goals, objectives and policies for future growth.

Now Therefore Be It Resolved by the City Council of the City of Iowa City, that:

The Comprehensive Plan be adopted by the City Council of the City of Iowa City to provide a basis for the decisions in the regulation of land use and the construction of trafficways and community facilities.

There was no new zoning concerning the tract pursuant to the 1978 Comprehensive Plan. However, this plan recommended that the tract be limited to residential development at a density of eight to sixteen dwellings per acre.

In 1983 Iowa City updated its comprehensive zoning plan. The tract was then zoned RM-12, a zoning that had the same limitations as the R-3 zoning. For all practical purposes the tract was under the same use restrictions as it was in 1972.

In 1985 after many requests from area residents, the tract was again downzoned, this time to RS-8. RS-8 zoning is for single-family or duplex dwellings and permits only eight units per acre.

The Neuzil family has consistently objected to the downzoning. Each time the family claimed that the proposed zoning would decrease the value of the tract. The family, however, had agreed not to sell or begin developing the tract for commercial purposes while Ella was still alive.

In the 1960s and 1970s much of the area surrounding the tract was highly developed. The tract borders University Heights on the north and west side. In fact, the only access to the tract is through streets from University Heights although the tract is in Iowa City. The land abutting the tract in University Heights is single-family residential. The land to the east and south of the tract consists of single-family dwellings. A ravine runs east and west on the tract and drains into Melrose Lake, which is on the land immediately east of the tract. The land (designated as the "Smith land" on the exhibit map) immediately east of the tract was also downzoned to RS-8 in 1985. But its owners did apply for, and received, a variance to permit multi-family occupancy.

Because the tract was undeveloped, the neighbors often used it for recreational purposes. In fact, residents in the area tried unsuccessfully to get University Heights and Iowa City to purchase the tract for a neighborhood park.

Shortly after the 1983 zoning ordinance was adopted, owners of the Smith land were making plans to develop their land as permitted under the then existing zoning ordinance. Residents from University Heights and Iowa City who lived close to the tract organized the Melrose Lake Association.

Because the association did not want more multi-family housing in the area, it petitioned the Iowa City Planning Commission to downzone the tract, as well as the Smith land to RS-8. When the commission refused, the association petitioned the city council of Iowa City to downzone the tract.

The city council held two public hearings on the petition in March and April 1985. Proponents and opponents of the proposed downzoning were heard. On June 4, 1985, the council voted to downzone the tract to RS-8.

The city council drafted its findings and reasons for approving the downzoning after the Neuzils filed the present lawsuit. The district court, however, found that the council had indeed relied on these reasons in downzoning the tract. These reasons included the following:

1. The Neuzil tract contains 8.5 acres of land, with direct access only into streets through residential neighborhoods.

2. The Neuzil tract is surrounded on three sides by single-family residential neighborhoods, those on the north and west being located in the Town of University Heights. On June 4, 1985, the property to the east of the Neuzil tract was also rezoned to RS-8.

3. The streets in the single-family neighborhood abutting the Neuzil tract were not designed to handle heavy amounts of traffic, and the other streets in the area are already heavily traveled.

4. Development of the Neuzil tract at the maximum density permitted in the RM-12 zone would allow construction of approximately 126 additional dwelling units raising the potential for generating approximately 1550 motor vehicle trips daily.

5. The allowable density on the Neuzil tract will reduce the potential increase to traffic congestion on the streets in the immediate area.

6. The area is shown on the City's Comprehensive Plan as being developed at 8 to 16 dwellings per acre, and the RS-8 zoning is consistent with that Plan.

7. Multi-family development of the tract, at the density permitted in the RM-12 zone, would have a negative impact on the value of property surrounding the tract. Development of the density permitted in the RS-8 zone should help maintain the value of neighboring properties.

8. The Neuzil tract contains a pond and two large, partially wooded ravines, and the property immediately to the east of the Neuzil tract contains Melrose Lake, an environmentally sensitive and important feature of the area.

9. Storm water runoff occasionally causes Melrose Lake to overflow, floods areas downstream, and contributes to pollution of the lake.

10. Development at a lower density will reduce the magnitude of the increase in Melrose Lake drainage, flooding and pollution problems, but will still permit development which is sensitive to the fragile environment.

Following the 1985 rezoning, the Neuzils brought this suit against Iowa City, seeking a declaratory judgment and damages. They wanted the 1985 downzoning declared void as unreasonable. They also sought damages based on claims of tortious interference with business opportunities, an unconstitutional taking without just compensation, and inverse condemnation. The suit was filed at law and tried to the court. On the day of trial, the Neuzils withdrew their inverse condemnation claim.

The district court found that the 1985 downzoning amendment was reasonable and that the Neuzils had not proven their claims of tortious interference or civil rights violation. The Neuzils appealed, raising one issue: Was the 1985 downzoning amendment valid under the circumstances?

The court of appeals, using a de novo review, reversed. We granted the city's petition for further review, and the case is now before us.

II. Scope of Review.

We review a case according to the way it was tried in the district court. If it was tried as an equity case, our review is de novo. If it was tried as a law case, our review is for errors at law. Bricker v. The Maytag Co., 450 N.W.2d 839, 840-41 (Iowa 1990).

Here, the Neuzils filed the suit at law. The district court treated the case as a law action throughout the litigation. The district court ruled on all trial objections as required in a law action. In addition, the district court stated explicitly in its ruling that the action was being decided as a law action. So our proper scope of review is for errors at law.

Because our review is for errors at law, the district court's findings of fact have the effect of a special verdict. Iowa R.App.P. 4. These findings are binding on us if they are supported by substantial evidence. Iowa R.App.P. 14(f)(1). Evidence is substantial if reasonable minds would find it adequate to reach a conclusion. Johnson v. Dodgen, 451 N.W.2d 168, 171 (Iowa 1990).

We construe the district court's findings broadly and liberally. In case of ambiguity, we construe the findings to uphold rather than to defeat the judgment. Rouse v. State, 369 N.W.2d 811, 813 (Iowa 1985). We are not, however, bound by the district court's determination of law. So we are free to decide whether the district court's findings were induced by legal error. Id. at 813.

III. Validity of the 1985 Amendment Downzoning the Tract.

Zoning is an exercise of the police powers delegated by the State to municipalities. Iowa Code § 414.1 (1985). A zoning ordinance, including any a...

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