Iowa Supreme Court: Changes within trailer park did not affect its zoning status

By: Rox Laird on March 21st, 2018

Does the “detritus of life” change a Des Moines trailer park’s legal nonconforming zoning status it has enjoyed for 63 years?

Not in the eyes of the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Oak Hill Mobile Home Park on Des Moines’ south side has been a legal nonconforming use since 1955, and the Court, in a unanimous March 16 ruling by Justice Bruce Zager, said the City of Des Moines failed to prove that had changed to the point where the City was warranted in shutting it down.

A legal nonconforming use, Zager wrote, is the use of a property that existed before a zoning ordinance is enacted or changed and continues unless the nonconforming use is “legally abandoned, enlarged or extended.”

Oak Hill existed before the city rezoned the area in 1955, and the overall configuration of the park has not changed, nor has the number of trailers increased. But the city argued in 2014 that the use of the property had “intensified” over the years with the addition of porches, decks, outbuildings and other structures that put the park in violation of city zoning regulations.

The Polk County District Court ruled that the City could revoke Oak Hill’s occupancy permit because the mobile home park had “intensified” its use of the property. The park had become “filled with the detritus of life: vehicles, outdoor recreational equipment, garbage bins, makeshift gardens, fencing, and crudely constructed additions to the mobile homes,” the trial judge wrote, which pose a threat to safety and property.

The Supreme Court, however, said the City failed to demonstrate a safety threat. “Remarkably, the record is largely bereft of evidence demonstrating the existence of a significant safety issue,” Zager wrote. “Although the fire marshal testified about the fire hazards specific to all mobile homes in general, he acknowledged that Oak Hill has not been cited for any fire safety code violations.”

The Court also said the City failed to demonstrate that Oak Hill had so changed the character and intensity of the mobile home park that it should lose its legal nonconforming status.

Zager said property owners legally have some latitude to change the original nonconforming use, provided the changes are not substantial and do not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood. But the Court had not before addressed the question of “whether the intensification of a mobile home park due to the addition of structures or the expansion of homes within the park amounts to an illegal expansion of the authorized nonconforming use.”

In this case, the addition of structures to the mobile homes as well as the “detritus of life” the District Court noted, “have not substantially changed the nature and character of [the] use of the property as a mobile home park,” Zager wrote. “Rather, this steady increase in the additions to the mobile home structures and other objects found on the property represents a marginal change that falls within the degree of latitude that the law affords to property owners in their nonconforming use.”

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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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