Farmland Not Part of Drainage District – Land Not Benefitted

December 29, 2008 | Roger McEowen

Iowa law specifies that once a drainage district is established, additional land that is contiguous to the land in the district may be annexed into the district if the contiguous lands are benefitted by the improvement.  The question of whether land was benefitted by a drainage district and could, therefore, be annexed into the district was involved in this case.

A drainage district was created in 1916 which included about 12,000 acres of land.  Adjoining land consisted of various watersheds, and the drainage district received drainage from approximately 45,000 acres of the adjoining lands through open ditches and tiles.  Consequently, the defendant sought to annex the adjoining lands into the drainage district.  The plaintiff (representative of numerous landowners in a watershed bordering the drainage district) objected to annexation on the basis that they would not benefit from the drainage of their lands.  The defendant hired an engineering firm which prepared a report recommending an extensive clean-out, repair of the upper main ditch, which was not part of the litigation.  The report also proposed new construction south of the drainage district for flood control purposes affecting lands between the lower main open ditch and the outlet of the Des Moines River.  This latter proposal also noted the possible annexation of additional lands, including that owned by the plaintiff.  The defendant then held a hearing, approved the engineering firm’s report and recommended annexation of the additional lands into the drainage district.  The plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff hired two engineers to review the report of the defendant’s engineer.  These engineers claimed that the proposed annexation would not provide a benefit to the plaintiff.  But, the trial court affirmed the defendant’s decision on the basis that the annexed land would benefit by having the 1916 improved outlet brought closer and by having the lower main open ditch cleaned out which would result in increased water flow.  The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision.

The appellate court noted that additional contiguous land can be annexed into a drainage district if an engineer examines the land and makes a survey and plat which shows the condition of drainage and specifies the benefit to the land proposed to be annexed.  Then, if the report recommends annexation, the board can annex the land if they are satisfied that the land will materially benefit the annexed land and they follow the statutory process for notice and hearing.  The court noted that the engineering report for the defendant recommended drainage improvements but did not specify any particular benefit to the plaintiff’s land beyond their current drainage systems.  Conversely, the plaintiff’s engineering report focused on whether the drainage district provided any specific benefit to the plaintiff, and determined that it did not.  The report found that the plaintiff’s land was not benefitted by the earlier drainage work done by the district and that the proposed improvements would benefit only the land contained within the drainage district.  The appellate court found the more specific report of the plaintiff’s engineer more persuasive than the defendant’s more generalized report.  Accordingly, the court held that the defendant had failed to show that the plaintiff’s land would materially benefit from annexation and reversed the trial court. Ray W. Ohrtman Revocable Trust, et al. v. Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors, et al., No. 8-479/07-1921 (Iowa Ct. App. Dec. 17, 2008).