Court of Appeals Rules Rezoning of Parcel to Allow Solar Farm is Valid

July 3, 2024 | Jennifer Harrington

On June 5, 2024, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision to uphold the Linn County Board of Supervisor’s decision to rezone agricultural land as an agricultural district with a renewable energy overlay district. The plaintiffs argued the rezoning was improper on multiple grounds. They argued it was inconsistent with Linn County’s comprehensive plan, violated Iowa’s prohibition of zoning on agricultural lands, and was an illegal taking of their natural drainage easement. The Court of Appeals found that the rezoning complied with the comprehensive plan since the board properly reviewed the impact of the rezoning. It also found that the primary purpose of the land was for the generation of solar power, not agriculture, even though a tile line ran through the property. Finally, the court also found that the rezoning was not a taking because the plaintiffs failed to show their natural drainage easement would be violated by the construction of a solar farm.


In 2021, the owners of 750 acres of farmland leased their property to Coggan Solar, LLC. The land is to be used for a 100-megawatt solar farm. Prior to building the solar farm, the land had to be rezoned from an agricultural district to an agricultural district with a renewable energy overlay district (RE-AG).

The Robinsons are farmers with land adjacent to and uphill from the 750 acres. Water from their property drains through the 750 acres through underground tile. They believe the construction of solar farm could damage their tile lines.

On January 24, 2022, the Linn County Board of Supervisors (Board) approved rezoning the 750 acres to RE-AG. Prior to the approval, there were three public hearings which included the opportunity for public comment. As a condition of the rezoning, the Board required the solar company to submit “a subsurface drain tile mitigation and management plan.” The company followed through on the requirement, and the mitigation plan calls for relocation of tile if necessary.

After the rezoning, the Robinsons filed a writ of certiorari challenging the Board’s decision. They argued there were multiple ways the rezoning was improper or illegal. The district court dismissed the Robinsons’ writ. The Robinsons then appealed on multiple grounds. They argued the district court applied the wrong standard of review, the rezoning did not comply with the comprehensive plan, the rezone violated two Iowa laws, and the rezone was an illegal taking.


Standard of Review

The first argument the Robinsons made was that the district court applied the incorrect standard of review. They argued the district court should have reviewed the Board’s actions “as a matter of law.” The court disagreed, explaining that quasi-judicial actions are reviewed under the “as a matter of law” standard and legislative actions are reviewed under a “fairly debatable” standard. Quoting Lauridsen v. City of Okoboji Bd. of Adjustment, 554 N.W. 2d, 541, 543 (Iowa 1996), the Court of Appeals clarified that the “fairly debatable” standard of review means that if reasonableness of the rezoning action is at least fairly debatable, then the action taken by a board of supervisors or city council will not be disturbed. The court found that the fairly debatable standard was appropriate in this case because the actions taken by the Board were legislative and not quasi-judicial. Quasi-judicial actions involve interpreting and applying laws, which the Board did not do.

Comprehensive Plan

The Robinsons’ also argued the rezoning was inconsistent with Linn County’s Comprehensive Plan (plan) since one of the plan’s goals is to preserve farmland. The Iowa Supreme Court has previously ruled in Residential & Agric. Advisory Comm., LLC v. Dyersville City Council, 888 N.W.2d 24, 45 (Iowa 2016) that zoning authorities comply with a comprehensive plan when they give “full consideration to the problem presented.” The court found the decision to rezone to be consistent with the plan since there was ample evidence that the Board spent “considerable time balancing the options and considering data from many sources.” Additionally, the plan also had a goal of increasing the use of alternative and renewable energy resources. There is nothing within the plan that requires farmland preservation to trump increasing renewable energy resources.

The Robinsons also argued that the comprehensive plan requires a Land Value Evaluation Site Assessment (LESA) to be conducted prior to the rezoning since the plan discussed using LESA when evaluating property development. Linn County Ordinance 107-70 requires a LESA to be performed before a rezoning occurs. However, the ordinance also exempts a “[r]ezoning to the renewable energy overlay districts.”  The Robinsons argued Ordinance 107-70 impermissibly alters the comprehensive plan’s requirement for a LESA. The court found that the comprehensive plan does not require a LESA to be conducted. The resolution adopting the plan states the Board “shall consider and may apply the goals, objectives, and strategies of the plan[.]” The term “may” means the Board can choose not to employ the LESA strategy. Therefore, Ordinance 107-70’s exemption of renewable energy overall districts from a LESA assessment is valid.

Statutory Violations

The Robinsons argued the rezoning decision violated Iowa Code § 335.2, which exempts land used “for agricultural purposes” from county zoning. The Robinsons believe the 750 acres falls under the § 335.2 exemption “because their farmland drains through the tile on the 750 acres.” The court rejected this argument because the § 335.2 exemption only applies when the land is “primarily adapted” for agriculture. Since the primary purpose of the land will be solar generation, which is not agriculture, the land is not primarily adapted for agriculture “even if it also happens to house drainage tile.”

The other statutory argument the Robinsons made centered on the “uniformity requirement” found in Iowa Code § 335.4. This code section authorizes counties to divide the county into zoning districts, while also requiring the rules within each district will be “uniform for each class or kind of buildings[.]” Although not examined in prior cases, the court assumed that there was a uniformity requirement in § 335.4. However, it found the rezoning did not violate that statute since the rezoning changed the district classification (from Agricultural District to RE-AG). There was no requirement in § 335.4 that RE-AG zoning rules need to be uniform with Agricultural District zoning rules.


The Robinsons also argued that the rezoning was an illegal taking because “installation of solar panels will require supporting pilings to be driven into the ground to support the solar panels. [… T]his installation may damage their tile line.” The court reviewed a three-prong test to determine if there would be an illegal taking; (1) is there a private property interest, (2) has the government taken the interest, and (3) if taken, has just compensation been paid?

The court agreed that the Robinsons have a property interest called a “natural drainage easement” and have not received compensation. However, the court found that no taking has occurred because it is unclear whether the tile line will be impacted or relocated. Even if the tile line is relocated, a natural drainage easement only requires the downhill property owner to allow the flow of the water to continue through their land.  The Robinsons did not provide any evidence that the water flowing from their land would be impacted by the solar farm.