Within the Scope

Blogging on Administrative Law and the Public Sector

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Land Use Case that Every Minnesota Rule Writer Should Read

On Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued an interesting and important opinion that the rulemaking community is certain to be thinking about, reading and discussing for weeks to come.

The opinion arises out of a challenge to the Department of Natual Resources' refusal to certify a local variance in favor of a landowner who wished to build a home along the Saint Croix River. The City of Lakeland granted the variance, but the DNR refused to certify this action -- a matter that under the state's scenic river rules purportedly deprived the variance of its legal effect.

An evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge followed. The Commissioner of Natural Resources affirmed the denial of the certification, issuing his decision within 90 days of the Administrative Law Judge's recommended decision.

In a challenge to that denial, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the agency's determination. The appellate court reasoned that because the denial of the certification was not rendered within 60 days of the ALJ's decision, it was untimely and ineffective. The appellate court concluded that, under the requirements of Minnesota Statutes, section 15.99, such a decision was due within 60 rather than 90 days.

Disagreeing, the agency sought further review with the Minnesota Supreme Court.

A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the lower court decision; albeit on very different grounds. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Legislature's delegation to the DNR to "manage and administer" the scenic river system was not broad enough to authorize the state rules which required the DNR's approval of locally-granted variances. In the view of the Court, if such a review power was intended, the grant of authority to the DNR would be both differently-worded and more explicit. Without the lawful authority to set-aside locally-granted variances, the lack of an approval from the DNR did not imperil the landowner's variance.

A question that was not reached by the high court, and thus remains unclear, is how vibrant is the Court of Appeals' analysis as to the due date for agency decisions in matters that touch upon zoning and land use? Are these decisions due in 60 days?

And while that would be helpful to know, interestingly, the longer-term impact of this decision will probably not be felt in land use cases; but rather in state rulemaking proceedings. The decision will likely sharpen an already rigorous and detailed focus on the phrasing of delegations of rulemaking authority in favor of state agencies.

For a more detailed study of the two appellate court decisions -- which each administrative lawyer should be doing these days -- the Court of Appeals' unpublished decision is accessible here; and the Supreme Court's affirmance is accessible here.