Iowa Court of Appeals Says Landowners Fail to Get Majority to Stop Drainage District Improvement

June 16, 2021 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

On June 16, 2021, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling involving a proposed $3,678,000 drainage district improvement. As stated by the court, “This case falls into the category of be careful what you ask for.”


The plaintiffs in this case are two landowners in Iowa Drainage District 37 (DD37). Experiencing water drainage issues, the two landowners asked their county Board of Supervisors (Board) to investigate the main tiles serving the district. The Board acquiesced and hired a drainage engineer to examine the cause of the excess water and provide recommendations. The drainage engineer prepared a report with recommendations to improve the main open ditch. Noting that DD37 had never received significant repairs, he estimated that the improvements would cost $3,678,000. The engineer recommended that the Board annex approximately 56,960 acres of land that benefitted from the drainage system. He also recommended a reclassification of the existing district to spread more equitably the project costs among landowners. The Board convened a public hearing to receive and consider the improvements. Various landowners filed written objections.

At the hearing, the Board discussed the DD37 landowners’ objections to the improvement plan. Under Iowa Code § 468.126(4)(e), if 50 percent of the landowners owning more than 70 percent of the land oppose an improvement, they may file a “written ‘remonstrance.’” If a remonstrance is filed, the board must discontinue the proposed improvements and charge the costs incurred to that point to the district. Iowa Code § 468.126(4)(e). According to the hearing notes, 59.77% of the landowners owning 65% of the land opposed the plan for improvements. Finding that the 70 percent threshold for a remonstrance was not met, the Board voted to move forward with the improvement plan.

The plaintiffs appealed the Board’s decision to the district court. They alleged that they needed more time to respond to the public hearing and that their rights under Iowa Code chapter 468 and the U.S. and Iowa constitutions were violated. The Board denied the allegations and moved for summary judgment, claiming that because the remonstrance failed, the landowners did not have any other remedies. The landowners objected, asserting that the Board miscalculated the objections for the remonstrance count. The landowners, in turn, presented their own tabulation data. After a hearing, the district court granted the Board’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the landowners’ complaint. The landowners appealed


On appeal, the landowners claimed that the district court erred in granting summary judgment because there were material factual disputes in regards to the Board’s remonstrance calculation. Both parties agreed that a majority of landowners voted against the improvement and thus met that element of the statutory requirement. See id. However, the parties disagreed as to whether the majority “in the aggregate” owned at least 70 percent of the total land in the district.

Here, the Board used transfer books from the county auditor’s office to determine the landowners in DD37 and, after making several recalculations, argued that those opposed only owned 68.56 percent of the land in the district. See Iowa Code § 468.14. The landowners asserted that the final calculation was 70.55 percent.

The district court noted several differences in the parties’ calculations. The landowners claimed that two parcels of land should be included in the number of objecting acres. One parcel consisted of 85 acres of annexed land. The Court of Appeals affirmed that annexed landowners do not have the right to vote in a remonstrance. The court explained that, with the addition of the second parcel of land, the opposing acres’ calculation, at 69.19 percent, fell short of the statutory requirement. The court affirmed that summary judgment was proper on this issue. 

Other Claims Not Addressed

In addition to the remonstrance claim, the landowners alleged that the Board did not give adequate time at the public hearing to allow objectors to respond. They contended that the Board abused its discretion in approving a project that was not “necessary or desirable, and feasible. See Iowa Code § 468.126(4)(e). The landowners argue that because the Board’s motion for summary judgment did not address these allegations, the district court prematurely dismissed their complaint.

To obtain summary judgment, the moving party must show there is no issue of material fact. In this case, the Board did not provide the requisite undisputed facts to support its motion for summary judgment. While reserving judgment on the unaddressed claims, the court reversed the grant of summary judgment for those allegations only.