Petersen v. Riverton City

Decision Date03 December 2010
Docket NumberNo. 20090095.,20090095.
Citation2010 UT 58,243 P.3d 1261
PartiesWillis Lauritz PETERSEN, Jr.; Leslee P. Christensen; Allan D. Petersen; Kristine Petersen Smith; and Dean B. Petersen, as trustees of the Margarett Park Petersen Family Living Trust, Petitioners and Appellants, v. RIVERTON CITY, Respondent and Appellee.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Dale F. Gardiner, Scott M. Lilja, Cassie J. Medura, Nichole M. Deforge, Salt Lake City, for petitioners.

Jody K. Burnett, Robert C. Keller, Salt Lake City, for respondent.

PARRISH, Justice:


¶ 1 In this case, members of the Petersen Family (the "Petersens") appeal the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of Riverton City, which upheld the Riverton City Council's denial of the Petersens' application to rezone a 20.84 acre parcel of land they own in Riverton City (the "Property"). The Petersens argue that the district court erred when it applied the reasonably debatable standard in reviewing and upholding the Riverton City Council's decision. They argue that the substantial evidence standard should have been used to review the denial of their application to rezone. Because we hold that the decision to grant or deny an application for a zoning change is a legislative decision subject to the reasonably debatable standard, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment. We also affirm the district court's denial of the Petersens' rule 56(f) motion for additional discovery and the dismissal of their constitutional claims.


¶ 2 The Petersens own 20.84 acres of land in Riverton City. In 2007, the Petersens entered into a contract with a developer, D.H. Horton, to sell the Property for $5.5 million contingent on the ability to rezone it. In May of 2007, D.H. Horton submitted an application to the Riverton City Council (the "Council") to rezone the Property from an RR-22 designation to an R-3 designation.1

¶ 3 In June 2007, the Riverton City Planning Commission (the "Commission") held a public hearing to consider the rezoning request. At the hearing, the Commission noted that the proposed change would be consistent with Riverton City's General Plan but entertained several public comments in opposition to the zoning change. Local citizens raised concerns about the impact on the ability to raise large farm animals in the area, the potential for increased traffic, and the desire to not increase the existing housing density in order to maintain the rural character of the area. During the hearing, there was also a discussion about selling part of the Property to Riverton City for a retention pond and one councilman expressed a personal opinion that the change would constitute "spot-zoning." Ultimately, the Commission voted to recommend denial of the application to the Council.

¶ 4 In July 2007, the Council held a public hearing to consider the rezoning application. The Council staff pointed out at the hearing that the Property is surrounded on three sides by the original R-22 zoning classification, that either an R-3 designation or an R-22 designation complied with the General Plan, and that the Planning Commission had recommended the denial of the application. There were also public comments made regarding the proposed rezoning that were similar in character to those made at theCommission hearing. All of the public comments were in opposition to the rezoning request. The Council also discussed the proposed sale of part of the Property to the City for a retention pond. The Council ultimately voted to deny the rezoning application.

¶ 5 The Petersens timely filed a Petition for Judicial Review of a Land Use Decision with the district court. The Petersens argued that there was no substantial evidence in the record to support the denial of their rezoning request. Furthermore, in their reply to the City's motion for summary judgment, the Petersens alleged that the Council violated the Petersens' constitutional rights when the Council treated them as a "class of one," differently from other similarly situated property owners in violation of their equal protection rights and that the hearing did not comport with due process. The district court dismissed these arguments and granted Riverton City's motion for summary judgment. In so doing, it applied the reasonably debatable standard of review to the Council's decision and held that it was not arbitrary, capricious, or illegal because there was a reasonable basis for it.

¶ 6 On appeal to this court, the Petersens argue that the district court erred when it applied the highly deferential reasonably debatable standard of review. Instead, they assert that the district court should have applied the substantial evidence standard because the Council's decision was quasi-judicial in nature. In the alternative, they argue that even if we hold that the reasonably debatable standard applies, the Council's decision was arbitrary because it was made solely on the basis of a desire to drive down the value of the property, a portion of which Riverton City desired to purchase for a retention pond.

¶ 7 The Petersens also argue that the district court erred when it dismissed their constitutional claims and when it denied their rule 56(f) motion for additional discovery. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j) (2008).


¶ 8 "We review a district court's decision to grant summary judgment for correctness, granting no deference to the district court's conclusions...." Bodell Constr. Co. v. Robbins, 2009 UT 52, ¶ 16, 215 P.3d 933. A municipality's decision to deny a rezoning request presents a question of law that we also review for correctness. See Bradley v. Payson City Corp., 2003 UT 16, ¶ 9, 70 P.3d 47.


¶ 9 The Utah Legislature has articulated the standards that a court must apply when reviewing municipal land use decisions in Utah Code section 10-9a-801 (2007):

(3)(a) The courts shall:
(i) presume that a decision, ordinance, or regulation made under the authority of this chapter is valid; and
(ii) determine only whether or not the decision, ordinance, or regulation is arbitrary, capricious or illegal.
(b) A decision, ordinance, or regulation involving the exercise of legislative discretion is valid if it is reasonably debatable that the decision, ordinance, or regulation promotes the purposes of this chapter and is not otherwise illegal.
(c) A final decision of a land use authority or an appeal authority is valid if the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and is not arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

¶ 10 This court has consistently held "that the enactment and amendment of zoning ordinances is fundamentally a legislative act." Bradley v. Payson City Corp., 2003 UT 16, ¶ 11, 70 P.3d 47 (citing Sandy City v. Salt Lake Cnty., 827 P.2d 212, 221 (Utah 1992)); see also Scherbel v. Salt Lake City Corp., 758 P.2d 897, 899 (Utah 1988).The wisdom behind these holdings is that "[t]he political nature of the decision making process underlying municipal zoning demands that the power to make such decisions be vested in persons who are publicly accountable for their choices." Bradley, 2003 UT 16, ¶ 11, 70 P.3d 47. Furthermore, "[i]t is the policy of this court as enunciated in its prior decisions that it will avoid substituting its judgment for that of the legislative body of the municipality." Id. ¶ 12. Given this court's hesitation to substitute its judgment for that of a municipality, we apply the highly deferential reasonably debatable standard when reviewing a municipality's zoning decision.

¶ 11 The Petersens urge us to overrule this long line of precedent and hold that the Council was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity when it denied their rezoning request and, therefore, that the district court should have applied the substantial evidence standard in reviewing the decision. We decline to do so. The case law and statutory authority on which the Petersens rely in making this argument is inapposite because it involves municipal appeal authorities hearing requests for variances and interpreting and applying existing zoning ordinances. See, e.g., Xanthos v. Bd. of Adjustment, 685 P.2d 1032, 1034-35 (Utah 1984) (reviewing whether the board of adjustment's denial of a zoning variance was arbitrary and capricious by applying the substantial evidence standard); Brown v. Sandy City Bd. of Adjustment, 957 P.2d 207, 210-11 & n. 5 (Utah Ct.App.1998) (reviewing the Board's interpretation of a zoning ordinance). The administrative bodies in these cases have been created specifically for the purpose of applying existing ordinances and evaluating the possibility of individual variances. These tasks are not of the same character as the Petersens' request to amend an existing zoning ordinance in its entirety. Therefore, because we see no reason to depart from our precedent, we hold that the Council's denial of the Petersens' rezoning request was a legislative decision.

¶ 12 Having determined that the district court in this case was reviewing a legislative decision under the reasonably debatable standard, we must now determine whether the district court was correct in holding that the City's decision was, in fact, reasonably debatable. A municipal board's decision will meet this standard if "it is reasonably debatable that the [decision to grant or deny the new ordinance] is in the interest of the general welfare." Bradley, 2003 UT 16, ¶ 14, 70 P.3d 47 (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 13 In Bradley v. Payson City Corp., we were faced with facts very similar to the facts in this case. The plaintiffs in Bradley submitted an application to the City Council to rezone property from a low-density residential classification to a high-density classification. Id. ¶¶ 2-3. The Planning Commission recommended a denial...

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