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Schwardt v. County of Watonwan

February 13, 2003



A county board of commissioners' grant of a conditional use permit was not arbitrary where the board gave serious consideration to the claims of opponents to the proposed use, and concluded that the applicant met each of the conditions for approval.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meyer, Justice


Appellants Sharon and Bernhardt Schwardt challenge the court of appeals' decision upholding the Watonwan County Board's grant of a conditional use permit (CUP) for a confined hog-feeding operation. The Schwardts contend that the board's grant of the CUP was unreasonable and arbitrary because the board failed to properly consider the potential adverse health effects of the proposed feedlot, overlooked a setback requirement in the governing ordinance, and failed to support the grant of the CUP with sufficient findings. We affirm the court of appeals' decision to affirm the grant of the CUP, but reverse the court of appeals' remand for further proceedings.

In March 2001, Brent Kueker applied to Watonwan County for a permit to build three hog confinement facilities on a parcel of land owned by his father-in-law, Douglas Anderson. Those three buildings would together house a maximum of 3,120 hogs, or 936 animal units. A local ordinance required Kueker to obtain a CUP because the proposed feedlot would contain more than 700 animal units. Watonwan County, Minn., Zoning Ordinance § 6, subd. C-12 (July 1999) (hereinafter Ordinance). The proposed CUP was heard first by the county's seven-member planning and zoning commission. Neighbors of the proposed feedlot site were given the opportunity to submit written and oral testimony in support of, or in opposition to, the proposed CUP.

The Schwardts live on a farm located one-half mile southeast from the proposed site and opposed the grant of a permit for the feedlot. They raised concerns about their health, odors, water pollution, their property's value, dust from increased traffic, the potential for introducing disease to their cattle, and that the facilities did not meet the half-mile setback requirement. Sharon Schwardt presented letters from various doctors opining that Sharon and her two adult children suffered from health conditions related to hog exposure. Nyles Schwardt and Nyla Johnson, the Schwardts' two adult children, testified about their own allergies to hogs. In addition to the letters from doctors, the Schwardts produced notes from six other neighbors raising concerns about air and water pollution and traffic on the roads, and county property records for a number of parcels showing a fifteen percent reduction in value because of hog odor. The Schwardts submitted a letter from a Watonwan Soil and Water employee concluding that "odors will increase at the Schwardt and Anderson building sites." The Schwardts submitted newspaper articles and reports discussing how hog farms can negatively affect the health of people in the surrounding area.

Three major factors countered the Schwardts' evidence. First, Kueker and his wife argued that the Schwardts did not establish a direct causal relationship between the site of the proposed facilities and the Schwardts' health concerns. The Kuekers noted that there is already a hog barn close to the Schwardts, and that the Schwardts failed to provide specific evidence that the proposed feedlot would cause increased health problems. Second, an employee from the county environmental services office offered his conclusion that the environmental concerns were not serious. Third, the planning commission placed conditions on the permit in order to assuage some of the neighbors' fears.

The planning commission discussed all the issues raised by the Schwardts. In the discussion about whether the proposal met the half-mile setback requirement, the Kuekers assured the commission that they would make any necessary adjustments to the location and the environmental services director of Watonwan County indicated that no building would be constructed unless it met the setback requirement. The planning commission added four conditions to address the neighbors' other concerns. The conditions were that trees had to be planted in strategic locations, certain additives had to be mixed into the manure pits, the roads had to be treated for dust, and neighbors had to be notified twenty-four hours before any manure could be applied to the fields. Even with those conditions, the planning commission voted 4-3 to recommend that the board deny the permit. All four members voting against the permit explained that health concerns were influential in their decision.

The Watonwan County Board of Commissioners (the board) then took up the issue and considered the Kueker permit at four meetings over a two-month period. The board studied the same evidence the Schwardts submitted to the planning and zoning commission, as well as an additional letter from Sharon Schwardt's doctor recommending "consideration of the patient's health in deciding placement of any hog facility in the area." The board also had before it a new letter from the environmental services director for Watonwan County opining that the Schwardts' concerns about noise and pollution of ground and surface water were unfounded. The board visited the proposed site, heard oral testimony from all interested parties, and deliberated at length in their meetings, which were recorded. At the fourth meeting involving the Kueker CUP, the board members voted 4-1 to approve the CUP with the previously noted four conditions. The board's written findings consist of a checklist that was marked to indicate that all standards in the ordinance were met. *fn1

The Schwardts appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Upon review of the record, the court of appeals concluded that Watonwan County did not act arbitrarily in granting the Kueker CUP. It held the board acted reasonably in addressing the Schwardts' environmental and health concerns, and it remanded to the board with instructions for Kueker to verify he has met the setback requirement. The court also considered the Schwardts' argument that the board did not make adequate findings of fact, and held that the findings were adequate.

Our standard of review is a deferential one, as counties have wide latitude in making decisions about special use permits. See Zylka v. City of Crystal, 283 Minn. 192, 195-96, 167 N.W.2d 45, 49 (1969). We review a county's decision to approve a CUP independently to see whether there was a reasonable basis for the decision, or whether the county acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or capriciously. See Swanson v. City of Bloomington, 421 N.W.2d 307, 311 (Minn. 1988); Northwestern Coll. v. City of Arden Hills, 281 N.W.2d 865, 868 (Minn. 1979).

By statute, counties may approve conditional uses if the applicant satisfies the standards set out in the county ordinance. See Minn. Stat. §á394.301, subd. 1 (2002). To show that the board acted unreasonably, the Schwardts must establish that the proposal did not meet one of the standards set out in the Ordinance and that the grant of the CUP was an abuse of discretion.*fn2 See Corwine v. Crow Wing County, 309 Minn. 345, 352, 244 N.W.2d 482, 486 (1976) (ruling that individuals challenging CUPs have the burden "to establish the alleged failures [of the proposal to meet county standards] and show an abuse of discretion"). The Schwardts first contend that the board acted unreasonably in granting the CUP to Brent Kueker in light of the evidence from the Schwardts that their health would be affected. Health concerns are not explicitly addressed in the Watonwan ...

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