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Bay v. Cass County Planning Commission

July 27, 2004


Cass County District Court File No. C5-03-551.

Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge; Lansing, Judge; and Hudson, Judge.


I. Preliminary-plat and final-plat approval by the planning commission are separate decisions subject to appeal under section 10.02 of the Cass County Subdivision and Platting Ordinance.

II. A grant of equitable estoppel is improper when the petitioner has not shown that the rights that it has ostensibly acquired in a plat would be destroyed by the proposed government action.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lansing, Judge

Reversed and remanded


Save Lantern Bay appeals from summary judgment that it failed to appeal in a timely manner to the district court from a decision of the Cass County Planning Commission. Save Lantern Bay also appeals from the district court's judgment that Cass County is equitably estopped from revoking the final-plat approval of a parcel owned by respondent Thousand Acres. Because we conclude that the district court erred in its interpretation of the appeals provision of the Cass County Subdivision and Platting Ordinance and in its judgment granting equitable estoppel against the county, we reverse and remand.


Save Lantern Bay is a group of citizens who own property on or near Woman Lake in Cass County. Thousand Acres Development, LLC, owns a parcel of land on Woman Lake that it seeks to develop as lakeshore lots. Cass County Planning Commission (PC) is the local government entity responsible for the review of development proposals in Cass County as governed by state statute and local ordinances. The members of Save Lantern Bay have opposed the development from its inception, due to factors that include its location on a shallow bay and the increased activity that the lots would bring to the surrounding sensitive habitat.

On March 25, 2003, the PC reviewed the preliminary plat of the Woman Lake parcel during a public hearing attended by members of Save Lantern Bay. The PC stated that it was reviewing the plat under the standards of a repealed version of the Cass County Subdivision and Platting Ordinance, rather than the version of that ordinance that had taken effect on January 12, 2003. The PC stated that its common practice was to continue to apply the repealed ordinance beyond the effective date of the new ordinance because it allowed a developer to proceed under known law and not have to anticipate changes in the ordinance. In accord with this practice, the Cass County Environmental Services Director told Thousand Acres during the application process and previous to the hearing that "the application would be considered according to the ordinance in effect at the time of the filing." The director explained that proposed amendments to the ordinance could alter provisions that governed the development and assured the developer that any amendments would not apply to the development.

The amended Subdivision and Platting Ordinance contained one change in particular that affected the provision governing the development of the Woman Lake parcel. Section 5.02.08 of the ordinance governs the size and nature of common-access lots, defined as "[l]ots intended as controlled accesses to public waters or as recreation areas for use by owners." Cass County, Minn., Subdivision and Platting Ordinance § 5.02.08 (2003). The ordinance previously governed only common-access lots provided for non-riparian (i.e., not contiguous with shoreline) lots, but the 2003 ordinance extended these limits to access lots provided for riparian lots. Id., § 5.02.08(C). Also, while the ordinance still required that the size of the common-access lot must increase commensurate with the volume of its proposed usage, that usage was now measured in a new way. Previously, Cass County measured usage of common-access lots by the number of watercraft docked, moored, or stored at the access lot; but the 2003 ordinance considered the number of residence lots within a plat entitled to use the common-access lot. Id. What did not change was the requirement that the common-access lot must increase in size by twenty-five percent for each boat or residence lot beyond a baseline quantity of six. Id. Under our reading of the facts of this case, application of these new standards would likely have altered the Woman Lake plat by reducing the number of residential lots.

The PC approved the preliminary plat by unanimous vote at the March 25, 2003 hearing. As required by the ordinance, the PC met again to approve the final plat on April 22, 2003, a necessary predicate in Cass County to final-plat approval by the county board. Members of Save Lantern Bay were also present at this final-plat-approval hearing, which included an opportunity for public comment. They stated that they disagreed with the PC's decision not to apply the current ordinance. The PC responded that its policy remained the same: to apply the ordinance as it existed when the preliminary-plat process began.

On May 6, 2003, fourteen days after the meeting, Save Lantern Bay appealed the PC's decision in Cass County District Court, pursuant to section 10.02 of ...

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