by Neil Harl, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Professor of Economics: Member of the Iowa Bar, 515/294-6354, firstname.lastname@example.org
The long-awaited opinion of the Iowa Supreme Court in the so-called “Humboldt County” case was handed down on March 5, 1998. Two justices declined to participate. Justice Larson had taken a position earlier in a Shelby County controversy and had indicated that he would not take part in the decision. Justice McGiverin also declined to take part, presumably because of public comments made earlier this year regarding pressure on courts by interest groups.
Three justices concurred in the main opinion. Two more, Carter and Neuman, concurred specially. One, Harris, dissented in part and Snell dissented. Thus, the court was divided in the case.
The court struck down the Humboldt County ordinances, but did not hold that all county efforts were necessarily pre-empted, at least not as of now.
What the Court did not do
The court made it clear that it was limiting its decision to whether the county had the authority to enact the challenged ordinances. The court stated that the wisdom of those ordinances and the issue of whether local governments should be allowed to regulate livestock confinement operations were not before the court. The court pointedly left those issues for legislative consideration.
Attitude toward “home rule”
The court addressed the effect of the 1978 Constitutional Amendment granting “home rule” to counties and municipalities. Under that amendment, counties have the power “to determine their local affairs and government” but only to the extent those determinations are “not inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly.”
The court in the March 5 decision, stated that a “county may, except as expressly limited by the Constitution, and if not inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly, exercise any power and perform any function it deems appropriate to protect and preserve the rights, privileges and property of the county or of its residents, and to preserve and improve the peace, safety, health, welfare, comfort and convenience of its residents.” A county may not set standards and requirements which are lower or less stringent than those imposed by state law, but may set standards and requirements which are higher or more stringent than those imposed by state law unless a state law provides otherwise.
The Court’s view of the ordinances
The court said that Ordinance 22, which imposed a permit requirement before construction or operation of a regulated facility, was in conflict with a state statute establishing permit requirements for animal feeding operations.
Ordinance 23, establishing security requirements, in the court’s view also conflicts with the state’s permitting requirements for the operation of livestock confinement facilities.
Ordinance 24, implementing groundwater protection policies, is in conflict with the state statute granting exclusive jurisdiction to the Department of Natural Resources to regulate the disposal of animal wastes from confinement facilities.
Finally, Ordinance 25, governing toxic air emissions from regulated facilities, is, the court said, in conflict with the state statute placing strict and comprehensive limitations on nuisance suits against animal feeding operations.
The court indicated that the ordinances are not valid because they are irreconcilable with state laws. In the court’s view, the ordinances do not merely set more stringent standards than state law in the regulation of confinement livestock operations; they revise the state regulatory scheme.
The court indicated that the challenged ordinances are not zoning regulations. Therefore, the agricultural exemption from zoning does not apply.
Concurring opinions and dissents
The concurring opinion makes the point that Ordinances 22, 23, and 25 are irreconcilable with state law.
The partial dissent argues that Ordinance 24 should be disapproved but asserts that the other ordinances are not inconsistent with state law. The other three ordinances set standards which are more stringent than those imposed by state law and this factor should not render them invalid, according to the partial dissent.
The dissent states that “the majority has drained the vitality from home rule” and little is left for local government.
Messages from the decision
The case is significant in terms of the scope of authority of counties and cities under the home rule amendment.
As for confinement livestock operations, the ball is back in the legislature’s court to decide what, if any, authority should be left to local governments in the matter. If nothing is done to pre-empt local control, counties will likely seek to draft ordinances that will be acceptable under the court’s interpretation of limited home rule authority.