The case is Sunberg v. Audubon Cnty., Iowa, Audubon Cnty. Bd. of Supervisors, & Audubon Cnty. Soil & Water Comm’n, No. 17-1192 (Iowa Ct. App. Nov. 21, 2018).
On November 21, 2018, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling regarding the county’s duty to properly maintain a soil and conservation structure. The court found that the defendants had no statutory, contractual, or common law duty to maintain the structure.
Since 1958, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—previously known as the Soil Conservation Services—has been part of an agreement with the Audubon County Soil and Conservation District (the District) and the Audubon County Board of Supervisors (the Board). The agreement established each party’s responsibilities for the operation and maintenance of David’s Creek Watershed, which is almost entirely located in Audubon County. The District would be responsible to “take necessary steps to insure that structures will function as intended” and “[t]ake all other necessary steps to insure that the works of improvement are permitted to function in the manner for which they were designed, and are operated in accordance with any applicable State law.” The Board would be responsible to operate and maintain the these structures.
Two landowners owned farmland in the David’s Creek Watershed. In 1971, the couple executed a written easement which allowed the District and the Board to access fifty-seven acres of land in order to construct and maintain structure 28-3. Structure 28-3 was to be an “earthen dam, a principle spillway, a permanent pool or sediment pond, and an emergency spillway.” The pond was completed in 1975 and the landowners stocked it with fish. In 1999 the pond silted in, the fish died, and the land became unfarmable.
By 2013, the pond no longer existed. That same year, the landowners sued Audubon County, the Board, and the Audubon County Soil and Water Commission for failing to prevent the pond from filling with sediments or taking any steps to remedy the silting.
The landowners claimed the defendants had a statutory duty to maintain the structure. Under Iowa law, counties may assume cost of maintaining flood and erosion control structures. Iowa Code § 161E.5 (2018). This also applies to projects that have been built on private land. Iowa Code § 161E.7. The plaintiffs claimed because the county had a duty to maintain the flood control structure, they were entitled to damages. The Iowa Supreme Court has held there is no private right to sue under regulatory statutes unless the statute specifically provides such a remedy. The Court of Appeals found that no provision in the statutes upon which the plaintiffs relied gave them a private right to sue.
The plaintiffs also claimed the defendants had a common law duty to maintain the structure. Citing Koenigs v. Mitchell Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, the plaintiffs claimed that easement holders have the obligation to repair and maintain the easement. The lower court determined that the general rule was not applicable because the parties had a written contract which laid out the defendant’s obligations to care for the easement. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling finding that the written agreement overrode the common law duty.
When analyzing the easement agreement itself, the court found that its language was permissive rather than mandatory. The section regarding care and maintenance allowed the defendants to do so, but did not require it. Additionally, the court found that even if there was a contractual duty to maintain the structure, the word “maintain” is an ambiguous term which means the court must look at extrinsic information. One purpose of the structure was to collect up to 86.9 acre feet of sediment. While silt had indeed filled the pond and had become a bog, it continued to function appropriately and offer flood protection. Therefore, because it functioned as intended, the court found there was no need to “maintain” the structure.
The plaintiffs also claimed the defendants had a contractual duty to maintain the structure. The landowners relied on the operating and maintenance agreement which was signed by NRCS, the District, and the Board. That agreement required the defendants to keep up the structure.
The defendants conceded that the operating and maintenance agreement created a duty to maintain the structure. However, they claimed that the duty was owed to the NRCS and not to the landowners since they were not part of that agreement. The landowners asserted that while the operating and maintenance agreement was executed before they signed the easement, they were aware of the agreement and relied on the defendants’ obligation to maintain the structure when they entered into the easement. The court held that despite this, there is no right to sue for a breach of contract to which the plaintiff is not a party.
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