Court of Appeals Affirms Zoning Approval for Indiana Dairy

On January 16, 2018, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the Rush County Board of Zoning Appeals' (County) decision to allow a farm family to build and operate a dairy in rural Rush County. The ruling makes it clear the appellate courts will give great deference to a zoning board's decision on local matters. A copy of the opinion (House of Prayer Ministries, Inc. v. Rush County BZA and Milco Dairy Farm, LLC) is available here.

Milco Dairy applied for a special exception to build a dairy on farm property it owned. The County held two lengthy public hearings, at which a nearby church/camp opposed construction of the dairy. The County voted unanimously to grant the special exception, subject to five additional conditions related to manure land application, a shelterbelt of trees, and other restrictions. 

The camp appealed the County's decision to a local trial court. After a hearing, the trial court affirmed the County's decision to permit the dairy. Next the camp appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals. The camp made five arguments: (1) the County did not consider the public interest; (2) the County did not consider impact on surrounding properties; (3) the County did not properly apply setback distances; (4) the County violated the camp's due process right to an impartial tribunal; and (5) the County's decision violated the camp's religious rights.

The Court of Appeals' ruling began by highlighting the standard of review it uses on County zoning appeals: "There is a presumption that determinations of a zoning board, as an administrative agency with expertise in the area of zoning problems, are correct and should not be overturned unless they are arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion."  

The Court rejected the camp's five arguments. 

Public Interest. The County made specific written findings about the economic impact the dairy would have on the community, including new employment opportunities and increased tax revenue. The County also imposed five restrictive requirements on the dairy to address potential negative impacts. The Court of Appeals held the County properly exercised its broad discretion. The Court will not reweigh evidence presented to the BZA. 

Surrounding Properties. The camp argued the County failed to consider the camp's witnesses' testimony that the dairy would have negative impacts on them. But the Court pointed out there was evidence for and against the dairy, and the camp's argument essentially asked the Court to ignore any evidence that does not support its case. The Court refused to do this.

Setback Requirements. The camp claimed the Court should have required the dairy to be set back from the camp at least one mile. The County Ordinance requires a one-mile setback between confined feeding operations and schools, but does not mention camps. The Court held the County did not make a mistake when it interpreted "school" to mean that which we traditionally think of as as "school" instead of the broad definition the camp urged. This interpretation did not violate the Indiana Constitution's Equal Privileges and Immunities Clause, because mandatory attendance for 180-days at a regulated school is not the same as an optional week-long summer camp. Having a one-mile setback for "schools" but not camps is reasonably related to those differing characteristics. 

Due Process. The camp claimed a county commissioner improperly communicated with a zoning board member during a break at a hearing in an attempt to influence the County's vote. The Court held there was no evidence the board member heard what the commissioner allegedly said, and therefore there was no violation of any constitutional rights. 

Religious Rights. Finally, the camp claimed the County violated the camp's religious rights when it granted a special exception to the dairy.

First, the camp argued the county violated a federal statute called RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act). That statute says no government entity shall make a "land use regulation" which substantially burdens a person's religious exercise unless the law is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of doing so. A "land use regulation" is a zoning law that limits the claimant's use of land if the claimant has a property interest in the regulated land. The Court held that since the camp did not own the property being regulated (the dairy's property), it did not have a claim under RLUIPA. 

Next the camp claimed the County violated the camp's religious rights under RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act). RFRA prevents the government from passing laws which substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, unless the law was in furtherance of a compelling government interest and the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The camp presented testimony at the zoning hearing that the dairy would create odors and potential waste run-off. The dairy presented testimony that the dairy would not create runoff and would use numerous odor mitigation practices. The BZA heard all this evidence and credited the dairy's testimony, which it is entitled to do as the fact-finder. The Court held there was no RFRA violation. 

Finally, the camp argued the special exception violated its religious rights under the Indiana Constitution. The Court concluded substantial evidence supported the County's determination that the camp's exercise of religion would not be substantially burdened. Thus, there was no constitutional violation. 

In short, the Court's 22-page opinion affirmed the County's decision to grant the dairy a special exception on all counts. 

Janzen Ag Law served as Milco Dairy's counsel and participated in the appeal.