Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Can Dyersville rezone heaven?

By: Rox Laird on August 3rd, 2016

The fate of plans for developing the fabled “Field of Dreams” movie location in Dubuque County may be determined by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Dyersville city officials and a developer envision a little bit of economic-development heaven at the Dubuque County farmstead used in the 1989 movie. The farm was sold to the developer, who plans to make it into an even bigger tourist attraction with 24 baseball and softball diamonds for regional tournaments.

About two dozen Dyersville residents and adjacent property owners—worried about the impact of traffic and crowds—think the development could have hellish consequences. They sued the Dyersville City Council, saying the city failed to follow proper legal procedures when it annexed and rezoned the farmstead and 193 surrounding acres of farmland for commercial development.

Dubuque County District Judge Thomas Bitter dismissed the suit, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the neighbors’ appeal from that ruling when the justices begin hearing cases in the court’s 2016-17 term next month.

The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on Sept. 19, when it holds a remote court session in Keokuk, at 7 p.m. in the Grand Theater.

Among the claims made by the petitioners is that the council’s action to annex and rezone the agricultural land is inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for commercial development downtown Dyersville not outside the original city borders. The petitioners also claim the city violated the petitioners’ constitutional rights of due process and equal protection in the way it went about the rezoning.

The city, in its brief filed with the court, disputes the project opponents’ arguments and says the district court got it right.

Beyond potentially deciding the future of this project in Dyersville, the Supreme Court is being asked to make a substantive ruling that could affect how every Iowa community handles rezoning decisions.

The petitioners argue that since a vote to rezone property is a quasi-judicial action, the council was required to act more like a court than a legislative body. But, rather than conducting impartial proceedings, petitioners said the city council members were biased in favor of the proposed development from the beginning and failed to follow procedural requirements of Iowa law and city ordinances.

In response, the city maintains that the Iowa Supreme Court has made clear in prior rulings that rezoning is a legislative, not a judicial, function. What’s more, the city says, treating rezoning decisions as judicial proceedings would be unnecessarily burdensome to Iowa municipalities, particularly small communities without fulltime planning and zoning staffs.

So, besides the people of Dyersville watching to see how this case will affect the Field of Dreams project, many other Iowa officials will be interested in what the Supreme Court says about how cities must handle rezoning decisions.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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