Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Campbell v. County Commission of Franklin County

Opinion handed down February 3, 2015
Labadie Environmental Organization and several citizens filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the trial court after the County Commission of Franklin County approved and adopted zoning ordinances allowing Union Electric Company, doing business as Ameren Missouri, to build a coal-ash landfill adjoining the Labadie power plant.[1]  Following a judgment in favor of the County Commission and Ameren, Campbell argued that the court erred by dismissing Count I of their petition as the Commission “failed to conduct a legally sufficient hearing as required by Missouri Revised Statutes Section 64.875 prior to adopting the zoning amendments allowing coal-ash landfills” and that the court erred by ruling in favor of respondents on Count II as the “zoning amendments are invalid for failing to promote public health, safety, and welfare.”[2]  Agreeing with appellants as to Count I, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the trial court’s opinion and remanded the case for further proceedings.[3] 

I.  Facts & Holding
In 2009, Ameren Missouri publicly announced its plans to build a coal-ash landfill on the land that it had recently purchased near the Labadie plant.[4]  The Franklin County Commission had two public hearings regarding Ameren’s plans.[5]  The subject of the hearings was proposed landfill zoning amendments.[6]  The Commission’s amendments “required that any coal-ash landfill in Franklin County be (1) located within 1,000 feet of an existing utility power generation plant and (2) under common ownership with the adjacent power plant.”[7]  The Labadie plant is the only “public utility power generation plant” in Franklin County.[8] 
At these public hearings, the “Chairman announced that speakers could not discuss Ameren Missouri or its proposed site for a coal-ash landfill near the Labadie power plant.”[9]  If citizens did bring up Ameren’s plans to build their ash-coal landfill, the Presiding Commissioner and the County Counselor interrupted them.[10]  As the “landfill zoning amendments made coal-ash landfills a permitted use,” there was no subsequent “opportunity for a public hearing on Ameren Missouri's proposed coal-ash landfill in the Missouri River floodplain and floodway.”[11]
The Labadie citizens and the Labadie Environmental Organization thereafter filed suit, “challenging Commission's amendment of the Franklin County Unified Land Use Regulations to permit the construction of coal-ash landfills.”[12]  The Labadie Environmental Organization is a “citizens' group opposed to Ameren's plan to build a coal-ash landfill in the Missouri River floodplain.”[13]  The appellant citizens are “eleven individuals who live or own property in the immediate vicinity of Ameren's Labadie power plant in Franklin County, Missouri.”[14]  Pursuant to Missouri Revised Statutes Section 64.870.2, the citizens and Labadie Environmental Organization challenged the “Commission's amendment of the Franklin County Unified Land Use Regulations to permit the construction of coal-ash landfills ‘contiguous to the boundary of the property upon which a public utility power plant is situated.’”[15]
Count I of the petition for a writ of certiorari alleged “that Commission's adoption of the amendments was illegal, because Commission failed to conduct valid public hearings.”[16]  Count II of the petition for a writ of certiorari alleged “that Commission's decision to adopt the amendments was illegal, because the amendments do not promote the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens of Franklin County.”[17]
Following the filing of the petition, the trial court issued a writ of certiorari to the commission, “directing it to provide the court with a certified copy of the complete record pertaining to the commission's decision.”[18]  Ameren Missouri then filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the Commission and argued “Appellants' challenge to the zoning amendments was a challenge to Ameren's ‘right to create, operate, and maintain a utility waste landfill’ on its property adjacent to the Labadie power plant.”[19]  The trial court granted Ameren Missouri’s motion to intervene.[20]   
In February 2012, Ameren Missouri and the Commission “filed motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Missouri Supreme Court Rule 55.27(b) or, in the alternative, to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Rule 55.27(a)(6).”[21]  In May 2014, the trial court eventually sustained these motions, granting Ameren Missouri and the Commission’s motion to dismiss as to Count I.[22]  Count I was dismissed without a ruling on the merits.  Count II has other procedural history not mentioned in this summary as Count I was reversed by the Supreme Court of Missouri and the court did not argue Count II on the merits.
The Labadie citizens and the Labadie Environmental Organization then appealed the trial court’s ruling.  

II.  Legal Background
Missouri Revised Statutes Section 64.870 provides the majority of the legal background for this case.Section 64.870.1 provides for who may be on a county commission, the makeup of the county commission, how long citizens may serve on the commission, who may be chairman of the commission, who may attend meetings of the board, who may appeal the decisions of the board, and other procedural issues.[23] 
Section 64.870.2 states,

Any owners, lessees or tenants of buildings, structures or land jointly or severally aggrieved by any decision of the board of adjustment or of the county commission” may “present to the circuit court of the county in which the property affected is located, a petition, duly verified, stating that the decision is illegal in whole or in part, specifying the grounds of the illegality and asking for relief therefrom.[24] 

Once a petition is brought to the trial court, the “court shall allow a writ of certiorari directed to the board of adjustment or the county commission, respectively, of the action taken and data and records acted upon, and may appoint a referee to take additional evidence in the case.”[25]  Additionally, “the court may reverse or affirm or may modify the decision brought up for review.”[26]  Importantly,

[a]fter entry of judgment in the circuit court in the action in review, any party to the cause may prosecute an appeal to the appellate court having jurisdiction in the same manner now or hereafter provided by law for appeals from other judgments of the circuit court in civil cases.[27]
Section 64.875 governs the requirements of hearings for county planning commissions. It states that “no amendments shall be made by the county commission except after recommendation of the county planning commission, or if there be no county planning commission, of the county zoning commission, after hearings thereon by the commission.”[28]  The statute requires that “[p]ublic notice of the hearings shall be given in the same manner as provided for the hearing in section 64.815.”[29]  Section 64.815 states that the county commission must hold at least one public hearing with “fifteen days' notice of the time and place of which shall be published in at least one newspaper having general circulation within the county, and notice of such hearing shall also be posted at least fifteen days in advance thereof in one or more public areas of the courthouse” of the county in which the commission is located.[30]
III.  Instant Decision
Campbell first argued that the trial court erred in dismissing Count I of their claim because the “commission's decision to adopt the zoning amendments was illegal due to its failure to conduct valid public hearings as required by section 64.875.”[31]  Campbell argued that they properly stated a cause of action “because their petition alleges that the commission denied members of the public the opportunity to directly address Ameren's proposal for a new coal-ash landfill, despite the fact that the zoning amendments were designed specifically to authorize that landfill.”[32]
Section 64.875 does not define “hearing” nor have Missouri appellate courts defined the “exact contours of a sufficient hearing pursuant to section 64.875.”[33]  The court looked to legislative intent in defining “hearing” under section 64.875.[34]  The court determined that the “first prerequisite for a sufficient ‘hearing’ pursuant to section 64.875 . . . is that the hearing is public.”[35]  In this case, the hearing was public, thus meeting the first prerequisite of Section 64.875.[36]  However, the “issue raised by [Campbell’s] pleadings [was] whether the hearing was insufficient because the commission precluded the public from addressing Ameren's proposed coal-ash landfill.”[37]
The court then looked to the dictionary definition of “hearing,” which is defined as “‘a session . . . in which testimony is taken from witnesses,’ an ‘opportunity to be heard, to present one's side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated,’ and ‘a listening to arguments.’”[38]  Giving the word “hearing” its plain meaning, the court determined that the public was entitled “to present [their] side of [the] case,” and to have the commission “listen to [the public's] arguments.”[39]  Thus, the second prerequisite of a hearing under Section 64.875 requires “that speakers . . .  be allowed to address the subject of proposed zoning amendments.”[40]
The court looked to the purpose of the hearing requirement, noting that the “purpose of the hearing requirement is reflected in the requirement that local governments are required to provide notice of a public hearing.”[41]  The court then looked to State ex rel. Freeze v. City of Cape Girardeau to determine that “[t]his jurisdictional notice is not merely to advise affected parties of changes that will or might occur, but is an indispensable step in the process by which ‘parties in interest’ may profoundly affect the legislative course of such ordinance.”[42] 
In determining whether a public hearing must be conducted in a way in which the public has a voice in the matter, the court also looked to the Supreme Courts of Georgia and Pennsylvania.[43]  The court concluded that “[w]hile the specific procedures for conducting the hearing can be tailored to meet logistical necessities, the requirement of a public hearing pursuant to section 64.875 requires, at a minimum, that the public be given the opportunity to present its views about the subject matter of the proposed zoning amendment.”[44]
After the determination of what constitutes the prerequisites of a valid public hearing, the court found that Campbell submitted a valid claim for relief in Count I.[45]  Construing the Campbell’s petition broadly and assuming the truth of the allegations, the court held that Campbell“stated a viable claim that the zoning amendments were enacted without a legally sufficient public hearing.”[46]  As citizens were not allowed to speak about the proposed ordinance changes involving Ameren, the “manner in which the hearing was conducted arguably denied the citizens of Franklin County a fair “opportunity to be heard, to present [their] side of [the] case, [and] to be generally known or appreciated.”[47]  The court reversed the trial court's judgment of dismissal on Count I and remanded the case to the trial court.[48]
IV.  Comment
The Supreme Court of Missouri correctly applied the law in this case.  Although Missouri statutes do not indicate what a valid public commission hearing must consist of, the plain meaning of “hearing” requires that citizens not only be allowed to be at these hearings, but also to be able to speak about the proposed plans.
If citizens did not have the right to speak about the proposed zoning ordinances of county commissions, then what purpose would a public hearing have?  The purpose of having a hearing would be defeated.  The law is now clear in Missouri, a hearing regarding a proposed zoning ordinance must be public and the citizens must have the opportunity to address the proposed ordinance.  The citizens attending the public hearing cannot be silenced about proposed ordinances, but instead, must be allowed to address them directly.  The citizens must have the ability to affect the outcome of the proposed ordinances, rather than be forced to sit idly by as the ordinance is proposed and passed.

-Ross Freeman

[1] Campbell v. Cnty. Comm’n of Franklin Cnty., 453 S.W.3d 762, 763 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Id. at 764.
[4] Id. 
[5] Id.
[6] Campbell v. Cnty. Comm’n of Franklin Cnty., 2014 WL 3582711, 1 (Mo. Ct. App. 2014).
[7] Id. at 2.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 1.
[13] Id. 
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Id.
[21] Id. at 765.
[22] Id.
[23] Mo. Rev. Stat.  § 64.870 (2014).
[24] Id. at § 64.870.2.
[25] Id.
[26] Id.
[27] Id.
[28] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 64.875 (2014).
[29] Id.
[30] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 64.815 (2014).
[31] Campbell v. Cnty. Comm’n of Franklin Cnty., 453 S.W.3d 762, 768 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id.
[37] Id.
[38] Id. (citing MERRIAM–WEBSTER'S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY 574 (11th ed. 2012)).
[39] Id.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Id. at 769 (quoting State ex rel. Freeze v. City of Cape Girardeau523 S.W.2d 123, 125 (Mo. Ct.  App. 1975)).
[43] Id.
[44] Id.
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] Id. at 770.
[48] Id.