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Billboard against sky background day imageLamar Central Outdoor, LLC v. City of Los Angeles, 2016 WL 911406 (Cal. App.) constituted another round between cities and billboard companies over the limits of regulation. In 2002, defendant banned most billboards in the City, except for those allowed in a certain planned development zone and those advertising goods and services sold on the premises and for noncommercial billboards.   The City also banned alterations to existing billboards.   Exceptions to the ban included billboards allowed under a development agreement, special zoning district, and to work located primarily in a public right of way (such as a bus or transit stop).   The City’s sign code rests on traffic safety and aesthetics.

Justice Antonin Scalia passed away last week after almost 30 years as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Although his impact was felt throughout the country, it is worth pausing to look at how he affected the land use system more broadly and, in particular, Oregon’s system.

Small toy house on leavesLike a fly that can’t keep away from the flame, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to add a Fifth Amendment Takings Clause case to its docket for 2016. More than 25 years have passed between the U.S. Supreme Court incursions into the use of the takings clause regarding conditions of approval in cases such as Dolan v. City of Tigard, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, and the US Supreme Court’s 2013 decision Koontz v. St. Johns Water Management District.  The Court has decided to wade back into the takings mire once again. Rather than dealing with efficacy of land use conditions, as with the issue as in Nollan, Dolan, and Koontz, this time the issue relates to the “parcel as a whole” rule.

Blank White Sign in City StreetAfter the U.S. Supreme Court held that the government cannot single out one form of noncommercial speech over another, comes a series of rulings that similarly should have dealt with the questions of content neutrality, a primary tenet of free speech under the Oregon and federal constitutions. Yet, in the Icon Groupe. LLC v. Washington County series of cases, strategic lawyering seems to have put the free speech issues in the back seat.

In 2010, Icon Groupe, LLC filed applications to locate 17 freestanding signs that exceeded the otherwise applicable size and height restrictions, claiming an exemption from these restrictions on the basis that they were “safety signs,” described as:

“[d]anger signs, trespassing signs, warning signs, traffic signs, memorial plaques, signs of historical interest, holiday signs, public and service information signs such as rest rooms, mailbox identification, [and] newspaper container identification”

Some of the signs cautioned drivers on safety matters, while others exhorted them to have a “safe Memorial Day.”

The county did not contest that the signs qualified as “safety signs.” Rather, it denied the applications stating that the exemption was a content-based regulation that violated the Oregon Constitution that must be severed from the remainder of the code, leaving the remaining dimensional requirements, which if found, were violated. Icon appealed the denials but no final action was taken within 120 days, whereupon Icon asked the circuit court to compel the county to approve all the applications under a state statute. The court granted relief and denied a stay pending an appeal, noting that the 120-day statute required it to grant relief unless the permit would violate a substantive provision of the county’s plan or code and holding that statute did not authorize the court to consider constitutional questions. The county appealed that decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals but authorized a number of the requested sign permits.

While the county’s challenge to the mandamus decision was pending, Icon filed a civil rights action in federal district court, claiming that denial of the sign permit applications violated Icon’s constitutional rights to free speech, due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

Although the court agreed that the county did not present evidence that regulating signage advances a government interest, the court also found that Icon did not contest the constitutionality of the safety sign exception, effectively arguing that the exemption was constitutional.

The court then evaluated Defendants’ time, place and manner sign regulations, finding them related to valid public concerns, i.e., traffic safety and aesthetics, the code narrowly tailored in its dimensional requirements and allowing for alternative means of communication. Rather than arguing that the county’s sign regulations, including the exception were unconstitutional, Icon argued that the county’s denial of the applications was (1) premised on an impermissible purpose; (2) lacked consideration of less restrictive alternatives; (3) was arbitrary; and (4) a pretextual regulation of speech.

The impermissible purpose was the use of the asserted unconstitutionality of the exemption. However, the reasons given for the denial were the failure to comply with Code dimensional requirements. The court found that Icon did not have a vested or otherwise unfettered right to approval of its applications and content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions on free speech are constitutionally permitted.

As to a less restrictive alternative of approving the applications and dealing with the constitutionality of the exemption later, the court again noted that the denial was based on failure to comply with the narrowly tailored dimensional requirements of the code and the fact there might be imagined a less intrusive on free speech is not unconstitutional. The court also rejected the failure to act on its local appeal in a timely way as a due process violation, as that failure allowed for its mandamus remedy to be pursued successfully. The dimensional requirements was constitutional.

As to an allegedly unwritten policy allowing the building official to operate without standards in dealing with sign matters, allowing the use of a content-based restriction, it was clear that the official did not exercise arbitrary judgment over application of the dimensional standards, which was the basis for denial.

The final allegation was that the denial was pretextual and was really based on hostility to messages that Icon might communicate in the future. While these considerations were present, the dimensional reasons for the denial were valid time, place and manner restrictions that were narrowly tailored to accommodate valid public interests, toallow for free speech and left open other adequate channels for free speech. The court thus granted summary judgment to the county.

As a postscript, it should be noted that the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the circuit court in ordering mandamus relief, confining itself to the issue of whether a code violation occurred and not considering the constitutionality of the exemption. A Petition for Reconsideration is now pending and a Petition for Review may well be filed in the Oregon Supreme Court.

This is a case that contains many free speech strategic issues under the federal and Oregon constitutions. As a civil rights action, the costs to the county would have been immense had it not prevailed. Perhaps, one can view these cases as an immense chess game in which free speech was an onlooker.

iStock_000008821292_LargeWalker, Chairman, Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, United States Supreme Court Case No. 14-144 (June 18, 2015), was a First Amendment case involving the use of "specialty license plates" in Texas. Under a statutory scheme administered by Defendant Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Board, (“TDMV”) the State may approve or deny specialty license plate designs proposed by nonprofit organizations. The design may include a logo, a graphic, or both. TDMV may deny a design if it is "offensive to any member of the public" or by rule. Plaintiff Sons of Confederate Veterans (“SCV”), a nonprofit organization, sought approval of a design that included its name and a Confederate battle flag.

iStock_000070594267_LargeHorne v. Department of Agriculture, No. 14-275 (June 22, 2015) was an "as applied" takings challenge to an almost 80-year old law that was enacted by Congress as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 established a marketing system for certain products. Under the Act, Defendant U.S. Department of Agriculture required raisin growers to set aside a percentage of their crop, as determined by the Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC), whose members consist of growers and others in the raisin business and are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. The required “set aside” has the effect of raising raisin prices and allowing the RAC to market and otherwise dispose of the set aside raisins. There are, at times, sufficient receipts from the set aside raisins to exceed their market value; however, there are also at other times insufficient revenues to equal their market value, including the year at issue.

iStock_000009179828_LargeIn a long-awaited decision, the California Supreme Court upheld an “inclusionary zoning” ordinance by the City of San Jose that provided for construction of low and moderate-income housing by requiring a developer of 20 or more units to set aside 15% of the units for the private purchase by those with low- or moderate-incomes. The California legislature had authorized, but did not require, any particular method to provide such housing.

Oregon courts have a long-standing practice of giving deference to an agency's interpretation of its own administrative rule if the interpretation is “plausible” and not “inconsistent with the wording of the rule itself, or with the rule's context, or with any other source of law.” This type of broad deference is given not only to agencies in interpreting their own rules but also to local governments when applying their own land use plans and land use regulations. This approach seems to work well, especially in cases of local government interpretations, where the local government is an elected body and presumably can be voted out if their interpretations are viewed by the public to be inconsistent with adopted codes. Agencies, by contrast, are not elected but are typically run by governor-appointed commissions or boards. Deference to agency interpretations stems from a belief that the agency has knowledge of and will act to further the original intent of its own rules.

Similarly, the federal courts have historically treated federal agency interpretations of statutes and administrative rules with a great deal of deference. Again, under the same premise that so long as the interpretation is not inconsistent with the plain language of the rule, it is entitled to be affirmed. But a few weeks ago, in the case of Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, the Supreme Court indicated a change may be coming soon.

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