Tooele Cnty. v. Erda Cmty. Ass'n

Decision Date10 November 2022
Docket Number20210711-CA
Citation2022 UT App 123
PartiesTooele County, Appellant, v. Erda Community Association, Appellee.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Third District Court, Tooele Department The Honorable Dianna Gibson No. 210300358

Robert C. Keller, Danica N. Cepernich, and Nathanael J. Mitchell Attorneys for Appellant

Janet M. Conway, Attorney for Appellee

Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges David N. Mortensen and Ryan D. Tenney concurred.


¶1 In 2019, the Tooele County Planning Commission (the Commission) gave its "conceptual approval" to a developer's plans to develop two parcels of land, an action that drew spirited resistance from certain members of the community. In particular, over one hundred individual residents of the then town of Erda[1]filed a joint administrative appeal challenging the Commission's action. The Tooele County Council (the Council), acting as the administrative appeal authority, rejected those appeals.

¶2 Thereafter, the Erda Community Association (the Association) filed a petition in district court seeking judicial review of the Council's decision. Some of the individuals who had participated in the joint administrative appeal of the Commission's action are members of the Association, but the Association had not itself filed any such appeal recognizing this, Tooele County (the County) asked the district court to dismiss the Association's petition for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The court agreed with the County that the Association had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, but nevertheless denied the County's motion, determining that at least one exception to the exhaustion requirement applied here. We granted the County leave to file an interlocutory appeal from the district court's order denying its motion to dismiss, and on the merits of that appeal, we agree with the County: the Association failed to exhaust its administrative remedies and no exception to the exhaustion requirement applies. On that basis, we reverse.


¶3 The Association describes itself as "a member-based community non-profit organization formed to preserve rural property in Erda, and to support . . . efforts to incorporate the City of Erda." Its "members are residents of" Erda, a municipality located in Tooele County. Among other things, the Association "brings legal actions to challenge local municipalities" when it perceives that "their actions do not comply with the law and cause irreparable harm to Erda's rural and agricultural lifestyle."

¶4 In recent years, a developer (Developer) has taken steps to try to develop two parcels of land in Tooele County.[3] In furtherance of those efforts, Developer filed two conditional use permit applications with the Commission. In December 2019, after holding a public hearing, the Commission gave its "conceptual approval" to both applications.

¶5 The following month, the County received one administrative appeal regarding each of the Commission's two "conceptual approvals." In each appeal, the identity of the appellants was identical: some 125 residents of Erda signed them, and did so in their individual capacities. No corporate or business entity-including the Association-was listed as a party to either of these appeals. But at least some of the individual appellants were (and apparently still are) members of the Association.

¶6 Later, the Council-acting as the County's administrative appeal authority-held a public meeting to consider the residents' administrative appeals. After hearing arguments from the appellants and from Developer, a majority of the Council denied both appeals on their merits, with one member dissenting.

¶7 Shortly thereafter, the Association-on its own-filed a petition in district court seeking review of the Council's decision. No other individual or entity joined the Association's petition, and no other individual or entity separately sought judicial review. In its petition, as amended, the Association stated two "causes of action." First, it invoked Utah's Land Use Development and Management Act (LUDMA), as applicable to counties. See Utah Code Ann. §§ 17-27a-101 to -1104 (LexisNexis 2017 & Supp. 2022). Pursuant to LUDMA, a county's land use decisions may be challenged in court, but the court will uphold such decisions unless they are either (a) "arbitrary and capricious" or (b) "illegal." See id. § 17-27a-801(3)(b) (Supp. 2022). In its first cause of action, the Association asserted that the Council's decision was illegal because it espoused "an erroneous interpretation of the law" regarding both state statutes and county ordinances, and was therefore "outside" the County's "authority or jurisdiction." Second, the Association made a claim for declaratory relief, asking for a judgment "declaring that [the County's] conduct is in violation of the Utah Constitution, Utah statutes, and Tooele County land use ordinances."

¶8 The County responded by filing a motion to dismiss the Association's petition, asserting that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the petition because the Association had failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, a requirement imposed by LUDMA. See id. § 17-27a-801(1). The Association had not filed its own administrative appeal and, as the County saw it, the Association could not satisfy the statutory exhaustion requirement by pointing to the fact that some of its members had participated in appeals individually. And as for the Association's declaratory judgment claim, the County argued that, because that claim sought the same sort of relief-reversal of the conceptual approvals-as its LUDMA claim did, the Association was required to comply with LUDMA's jurisdictional prerequisites to assert that claim as well.

¶9 The Association opposed the County's motion, making two general arguments in response. It first maintained that, under the doctrine of associational standing, it was entitled to rely on the appeals in which some of its members had participated, and need not have separately filed its own appeal in order to have exhausted its administrative remedies. Second, and in the alternative, the Association argued that it should be excused from any exhaustion requirement due to the allegedly "unusual circumstances" of this case, which the Association asserted militated in favor of the application of one or more judicially created exceptions to the exhaustion requirement. Specifically, the Association contended that "barring judicial review in this case on these grounds [would] result in the likelihood of injustice"; that "exhaustion would serve no purpose, or [was] futile, given that the members fully exhausted the administrative process with a futile result"; and finally, that the County had "acted outside of the scope of its defined, statutory authority." But the Association's arguments regarding "unusual circumstances" were not well-developed; its arguments regarding the "outside the scope" exception, for instance, were limited to two sentences stating that "this case centers on whether [the Commission] has acted outside the scope of its defined, statutory authority," and stating that the Association, in its petition, was asking the court "to determine questions of construction or validity arising under the statutes and ordinances at issue in this case." And at oral argument on the County's motion, the Association made no mention of any exceptions to the exhaustion requirement, instead focusing on its argument that it had actually satisfied the exhaustion requirement through the appeal filed by some of its members.

¶10 After briefing and oral argument, the district court denied the County's motion. The court announced its decision in an oral ruling, which was later memorialized in a written order. The court agreed with the County regarding the Association's "associational standing" argument, explaining in its oral ruling that "[a]ssociational standing and the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies are two different and distinct legal concepts." The court concluded that, in order to satisfy the exhaustion requirement, the Association needed to have filed its own administrative appeal, and that the doctrine of associational standing could not "be used to satisfy" the exhaustion requirement when no such appeal had been filed.

¶11 On the question of whether any exceptions to the exhaustion requirement applied, however, the court sided with the Association and concluded that "at least one exception" would apply if the facts as alleged by the Association turned out to be true. In particular, the court determined that the Association had "established at this stage" that the exception for cases in which municipal authorities had acted "outside the scope of [their] defined statutory authority" might apply in this case. In reaching this determination, the court made reference to the Association's allegation that the Council had "violated Tooele County ordinances and [LUDMA], and in essence acted outside its statutory authority by" approving Developer's applications. The court then concluded by stating that, "[b]ased on these facts, [the Association has] successfully alleged an exception to the exhaustion requirement, specifically that an administrative agency or officer has acted outside of the scope of its defined statutory authority."

¶12 In its oral ruling, the court also noted that "there was an appeal" by the 125 Erda residents as well as "a review by [the Council] of [the Commission's] decision," and that "[t]he reasons for requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies have been accomplished" in light of the fact that the Council "was given an opportunity to review [the Commission's] decision and it was...

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