Justia Zoning, Planning & Land Use Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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The State of Alaska selected the land at issue in this appeal in 1989 under an Alaska Statehood Act provision allowing State selections of federal lands for community centers and recreational areas. In the 1990s, in order to settle litigation about the State’s management of lands granted to Alaska under the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act (Mental Health Act), the State agreed to create a mental health trust. There were extensive negotiations over which lands would be included in this trust. In the course of these negotiations, the State agreed that the parcel selected under the Statehood Act would not be conveyed to the mental health trust, but rather would be classified and managed by the State as wildlife habitat. For years after this settlement, the State managed the parcel as wildlife habitat. In 2009 the State and the federal government executed an agreement finalizing the Mental Health Act selections. One of the terms of the agreement was that the parcel selected under the Statehood Act would be converted to a Mental Health Act selection. The parcel was conveyed by the federal government to the State, and the State subsequently conveyed the parcel to the mental health trust. A lawsuit was filed against the State to invalidate the transfer of the parcel to the mental health trust, based primarily on the arguments that the transaction violated contractual and statutory terms of the earlier mental health trust settlement and violated the constitutional public notice requirement for disposing of an interest in State land. The superior court ruled for the State, and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court determined the State violated the public notice clause of the Alaska Constitution by disposing of an interest in state land without providing the public prior notice. Further, the Court held the State's exchange of interests in the parcel was inconsistent with House Bill 201 (1994). The matter was therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Supreme Court remanded for the superior court to "fashion a remedy" consistent withe the Supreme Court's opinion. View "Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Inc., v. Alaska, Department of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

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Mick and Cecilia Manns made unsuccessful applications for preference rights to purchase certain Alaska State land. The Mannses argued they were entitled to a preference right under AS 38.05.035(f) based on their business use of the land beginning in the mid­ 1970s. But this statute required the Mannses to establish business use beginning at least five years prior to State selection; in this case, the State selection occurred in 1972. The statute also required the Mannses to show some income reliance on the land for the five years preceding their application, but the Mannses did not submit any such evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court therefore affirmed the superior court’s decision affirming the decision of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to deny the Mannses’ application. View "Manns v. Alaska, Dept. of Nat. Rec., Div. of Mining, Land & Water" on Justia Law

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In previous proceedings, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated a superior court award entered in favor of Alaska Laser Wash, Inc. against the State, and remanded for reconsideration of prevailing party status, fees and costs. On remand the superior court determined that the State was the prevailing party and awarded the State attorney’s fees. Alaska Laser Wash appealed, arguing that it should have been awarded attorney’s fees under Alaska Civil Rule 72(k), which applied to eminent domain proceedings. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s ruling, concluding that when a landowner fails to establish a taking in an inverse condemnation case, attorney’s fees are awarded under Alaska Civil Rule 82, generally governing attorney’s fees, or Alaska Civil Rule 68, if there has been an offer of judgment, but not under the eminent domain rules. View "Alaska Laser Wash, Inc., v. Alaska Dept. of Trans. & Public Facilities" on Justia Law

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The superior court affirmed a municipality’s tax valuation of a landowner’s property. The landowner argued on appeal the municipality’s valuation review board abused its discretion by excluding certain evidence of value on timeliness grounds. The landowner also argued the board applied fundamentally wrong principles of valuation by failing to consider, as definitive evidence of value, either his purchase price for the property or the price for which he sold a neighboring lot. The Alaska Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion as to either of the issues the landowner raised: the assessor explained at the hearing why he considered certain evidence of value more persuasive and more consistent with the municipality’s usual methods of appraisal, and it was well within the board’s broad discretion to accept the assessor’s explanation. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court’s decision upholding the board’s valuation of the property. View "Kelley v. Municipality of Anchorage, Board of Equalization" on Justia Law

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A public utility filed a condemnation action seeking the land use rights necessary to construct a natural gas storage facility in an underground formation of porous rock. The utility held some rights already by assignment from an oil and gas lessee. The superior court held that because of the oil and gas lease, the utility owned the rights to whatever producible gas remained in the underground formation and did not have to compensate the landowner for its use of the gas to help pressurize the storage facility. The court held a bench trial to determine the value of the storage space. The landowner appealed the resulting compensation award, arguing it retained ownership of the producible gas in place because the oil and gas lease authorized only production, not storage. It also argued it had the right to compensation for gas that was discovered after the date of taking. The landowner also challenged several findings related to the court’s valuation of the storage rights: that the proper basis of valuation was the storage facility’s maximum physical capacity rather than the capacity allowed by its permits; that the valuation should not have included buffer area at the same rate as area used for storage; and that an expert’s valuation methodology, which the superior court accepted, was flawed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err in ruling that the landowner’s only rights in the gas were reversionary rights that were unaffected by the utility’s non-consumptive use of the gas during the pendency of the lease. Furthermore, the Court concluded the trial court did not clearly err with regard to findings about valuation. View "Kenai Landing, Inc. v Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage, et al." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT or the State) condemned a strip of property along the Parks Highway. DOT filed a declaration of taking, allowing it to take title immediately, and deposited approximately $15,000 in court as estimated compensation for the taking. The landowner challenged DOT’s estimate and was eventually awarded approximately $24,000, as well as attorney’s fees and costs. Pursuant to AS 09.55.440, the superior court awarded prejudgment interest to the landowner on the difference between the amount of DOT’s initial deposit and the amount the property was ultimately determined to be worth. The landowner appealed, arguing that the prejudgment interest should have been calculated on the difference between the deposit and his entire judgment, including significant amounts for attorney’s fees and appraisal costs. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the landowner’s argument was not supported by the statutory language, legislative history, or policy. Furthermore, the Court rejected the landowner’s arguments that the superior court applied the wrong postjudgment interest rate and abused its discretion by denying discovery of the State’s attorneys’ billing records. The trial court failed to state its reasons for excluding attorney time from its attorney's fees award, and therefore vacated that award and remanded for reconsideration only of the fees award. View "Keeton v. Alaska, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities" on Justia Law

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In 2013 and 2014 attorney Gerald Markham applied for a senior citizen tax exemption on his residential property in Kodiak, Alaska. The Borough assessor denied the applications due to Markham’s prolonged absences from Alaska. When given the opportunity to prove his absences were allowed under the applicable ordinance, Markham refused to provide corroborating documentation. He appealed the denials to the Borough Board of Equalization, which affirmed the denials. He appealed the Board’s decisions to the superior court. The superior court dismissed the 2013 appeal for failure to prosecute, denied the 2014 appeal on the merits, and awarded attorney’s fees to the Borough. Markham appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s 2013 dismissal and the Board’s 2014 denial on the merits, but vacated the superior court’s award of attorney’s fees and remanded for further findings. View "Markham v. Kodiak Island Borough Board of Equalization" on Justia Law

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Frank Griswold appealed a decision of the Homer, Alaska Advisory Planning Commission to the Homer Board of Adjustment. Griswold was a Homer resident who owned several lots within the Business District, one of which is approximately 3,280 feet from Terry and Jonnie Yager. The Yeagers applied for a conditional use permit to build a covered porch ten feet into a twenty-foot setback. Before the hearing, Griswold submitted two documents to the Commission, arguing that the setback exceptions required a variance rather than a conditional use permit and that provisions of the Homer City Code (HCC) allowing for setback exceptions by conditional use permits in the Business District conflicted with state law. After a public hearing the Commission approved the Yagers’ conditional use permit. Griswold appealed, arguing the Yeagers' permit would adversely affect the value of his Business District properties by increasing congestion in the area and that the permit would create a “pernicious precedent” for future setback exceptions in his neighborhood. Additionally Griswold said this would harm the use and enjoyment of his home. The Board rejected his appeal for lack of standing. Griswold appealed to the superior court, arguing that he had standing under the Homer City Code and alleging a number of due process violations. The superior court ruled that Griswold lacked standing as a matter of law and found any due process errors harmless. It also awarded the Board attorney’s fees on the appeal, reasoning that Griswold did not qualify for protection from attorney’s fees as a public interest litigant. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding that under applicable Home City Code section, a property owner need only produce some evidence supporting the owner’s claim that the city’s action could potentially adversely affect the owner’s use or enjoyment of the owner’s property. "The individual bringing the claim must still prevail on the merits by showing that a legal remedy against such harm is available." The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Griswold v Homer Board of Adjustment, et al." on Justia Law

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Kelly Dickson and Donna DeFusco owned adjacent parcels of land near Big Lake. The property’s original 160 acres were homesteaded in 1958 by their father, Benjamin Cowart, who received a patent from the federal government in 1965. He later purchased two 40-acre tracts that bordered his acreage to the southeast. Dickson and DeFusco inherited the property upon their mother’s death in 2007. At issue in this case are two easements the superior court found to exist across Dickson and DeFusco’s property. The first involved the Historic Iditarod Trail that was first surveyed in the early 1900s. The second easement was for part of Homestead Road and was created in 1958 when a neighbor, Charles Sassara, Sr., used a D8 Caterpillar to improve access to his and other homesteads in the area. The owners appealed a decision in favor of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), that recognized an RS 2477 right of way over their property for the Historic Iditarod Trail and a prescriptive easement for public use of a road. The owners argued the evidence did not support the court’s findings of the right of way and the easement; that the court made a number of procedural and evidentiary errors that collectively deprived them of procedural due process; and that the large attorney’s fees award in favor of the State was excessive in light of its likely deterrent effect and the State’s decision to vigorously litigate this case for its precedential effect. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not clearly err in its findings of fact, and affirmed its decision recognizing the RS 2477 right of way for the Historic Iditarod Trail and the prescriptive easement for the road. The Supreme Court found no abuse of discretion in the court’s procedural and evidentiary rulings. However, the Court concluded there may have been a compelling reason to vary the presumptive attorney’s fees award under Alaska Civil Rule 82(b)(3), and remanded for the superior court’s further consideration of this issue. View "Dickson v. Alaska, Dept. of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

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Frank Griswold twice appealed the Homer Advisory Planning Commission’s approval of a conditional use permit to the Homer Board of Adjustment and later appealed the Board’s second decision to the superior court, which sua sponte dismissed his appeal for lack of standing. Because Griswold did not have notice that his standing was at issue, his due process rights were violated. The Alaska Supreme Court therefore reversed and remanded for the superior court to decide his appeal on the merits. View "Griswold v. Homer Board of Adjustment" on Justia Law