Iowa Supreme Court Reverses Ruling Authorizing Eminent Domain for Reservoir
Clarke County Reservoir Commission v. Abbott, No. 14-0774, 2015 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 42 (Iowa Apr. 10, 2015)
The Iowa Supreme Court has reversed a declaratory judgment from the Clarke County District Court that authorized the use of eminent domain for a controversial new water reservoir. The district court’s order had declared that a proposal by the Clarke County Reservoir Commission (Commission) to condemn private property to construct a reservoir met the “public use,” “public purpose,” or “public improvement” requirements of Iowa Code §6A.24(2). On April 10, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the declaratory judgment on the grounds that the Commission comprised both public and private entities at the time the judgment was entered. Such a commission, the Court held, did not have the power to seek eminent domain, even when acting through a joint agreement between state and local governments. The issue of the merits of the public use determination was not before the Court. The Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
This case stems from attempts by the Commission to condemn private land to build a public reservoir in Clarke County. The Commission was created in March of 2003 when six groups filed a 28E agreement with the Iowa Secretary of State. A 28E Agreement, which is also called a “Joint Exercise of Governmental Powers” agreement, is authorized by Iowa Code §28E.1. It allows “state and local governments in Iowa to make efficient use of their powers by providing joint services and facilities with other agencies and to cooperate in other ways of mutual advantage.”
The founding members of the Commission included the Osceola Waterworks Board of Trustees, the Southern Iowa Rural Water Association, Clarke County, and the cities of Osceola, Murray, and Woodburn. The Commission’s purpose was to determine the future water needs of the Clarke County area. In August of 2008, the Commission amended its 28E agreement to add three additional organizations to its membership: the Clarke County Conservation Board, the Clarke County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Clarke County Development Corporation. The Clarke County Development Corporation is a private entity that lacks eminent domain powers. After considering various feasibility studies, the Commission decided to move forward with plans to build a new reservoir.
District Court Action
In 2012, the Commission held a public hearing and passed a resolution “authorizing public improvement which may require acquisition of agricultural land.” On March 5, 2013, the Commission filed an action in Clarke County seeking a declaration of “public use, public purpose, or public improvement” under Iowa Code §6A.24(2). The Commission served notice on the owners of the 54 tracts required to complete the project.
Nineteen owners, including the appellants in the current action, filed answers to the petition. Appellants argued that the Commission did not have the legal authority to initiate the condemnation action under Iowa Code §6A.4 because one of its members, the Clarke County Development Corporation, was a private party lacking eminent domain power. Appellants also argued that the real purpose of the reservoir was for recreation, not drinking water. The district court first ruled summarily that the 28E agreement granted eminent domain power to the Commission itself, even though one of its members did not possess that power individually. The court then ruled that the project qualified as a public use within the meaning of Iowa Code §6A.22(2).
Iowa Supreme Court Opinion
Appellants challenged the decision before the Iowa Supreme Court on the grounds that the district court erred in determining that a Commission comprised of a private member had eminent domain powers. During the pendency of the appeal, the Commission filed a motion to supplement the record, showing that the Clarke County Conservation Board, the Clarke County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Clarke County Development Corporation had withdrawn as members of the Commission. The Commission argued that since all remaining members were public entities with eminent domain powers themselves, the appeal was moot.
The Iowa Supreme Court began its review of the case by reiterating that statutes granting the power of eminent domain “should be strictly construed and restricted to their expression and intention.”
The Court then looked to the words of Iowa Code §6A.24(2), which provides that an “acquiring agency” may file its petition for eminent domain. “Acquiring Agency,” the Court noted, is defined under Iowa Code §6B.1(2) as “the State of Iowa and any person or entity conferred the right by statute to condemn private property or to otherwise exercise the power of eminent domain.” Thus, the Court found that an “acquiring agency” must possess eminent domain power.
The Court then ruled that although Iowa Code §28E.4 allowed public and private entities to enter into agreements for “joint or cooperative action,” the statute did not grant a private entity the power to participate in a 28E agreement exercising a public power the private entity lacks. The Court held that a 28E agreement could not bestow upon the Commission the power of eminent domain because only the Legislature had the authority to delegate eminent domain power. Rather a 28E agreement could only grant participants the right to exercise their already-existing individual powers jointly. Because a private entity has no eminent domain power individually, it cannot through a 28E agreement jointly exercise such power with a public entity. The Court stated that it could “not read new powers into chapter 28E in the guise of interpretation.”
“A contrary holding,” said the Court, “would effectively enable private entities to exercise eminent domain powers through a 28E entity. Private entities are not accountable to voters. Liberty requires accountability.”
Because it concluded that the Commission did not have the power of eminent domain at the time the district court entered its order, the Court reversed the declaratory judgment. The Court also found that the appeal was not moot (even though the Commission now comprised only public members) because an appeal of a ruling in favor of an improper party could not be rendered moot by substituting the proper party during the pendency of the appeal.
The Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
Although not disagreeing with the majority’s interpretation of the power of the Commission at the time of the declaratory judgment, Justice Wiggins dissented. Specifically, Justice Wiggins argued that the Court should have simply reversed the case and not remanded it. He argued that the case was flawed from the beginning because the Commission did not have the power of eminent domain when it served notice on the landowners and filed its petition. As such, he contended that the only way to cure the defect was to require the proceedings to start again with the proper “acquiring agency.” Attempting to fix the fatal defect on remand, Justice Wiggins warned, would lead to more time and resources wasted on another appeal.
Time will tell whether this compelling prediction comes true. We will keep you posted.
The Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation does not provide legal advice. Any information provided on this website is not intended to be a substitute for legal services from a competent professional. The Center's work is supported by fee-based seminars and generous private gifts. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the material contained on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of Iowa State University.