BETTENDORF v. ST. CROIX COUNTY (January 20, 2011)

John Bettendorf has owned a parcel of property inSt. Croix County in west-central Wisconsin for decades. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Bettendorf operated a carpet sales business on the property although it was zoned agricultural-residential. In 1985, Bettendorf sought and received permission to use the property for commercial purposes. The ordinance granting permission also provided, however, that the permission was personal to Bettendorf and could not be transferred. Almost 20 years later, Bettendorf sought a declaration in state court that the limitations on the rezoning were void and should be stricken. Unfortunately, the state court declared the entire ordinance void. The County withdrew its permission for commercial operations. Bettendorf filed suit in federal court alleging an unconstitutional taking and violations of his procedural and substantive due process rights. Judge Crabb (W.D. Wis.) granted summary judgment to the County. Bettendorf appeals.

In their opinion, Judges Bauer, Flaum, and Hamilton (concurring in part and dissenting in part) affirmed. The Court first addressed the takings claim. It stated that Bettendorf had to establish that government action had deprived him of "all or substantially all" use of the property. The relevant factors are the nature of the regulatory scheme, the severity of the economic impact, and the degree of interference with the owner's investment opportunities. Here, there was no government intrusion or interference with investment opportunities because Bettendorf himself brought the state action that resulted in the declaration that the ordinance was void. Bettendorf also has not lost the use of the property. He is free to use the property for the agricultural and residential purposes for which it is zoned. The Court thus rejected the takings claim. On the substantive due process claim, the Court stated that Bettendorf would have to establish that the County's decisions were "arbitrary, oppressive, or unreasonable." But here, the County's actions were taken in response to a court order invalidating the ordinance. The Court rejected the substantive due process claim, finding that action utterly reasonable. Finally, the Court addressed and rejected Bettendorf's procedural due process claim. Bettendorf's due process claim is that he was not afforded the typical County appeals process in a rezoning case. The Court noted, however, that it was Bettendorf who chose to challenge the ordinance in state court in lieu of the local appeals process. Bettendorf was afforded adequate process in those state court proceedings. Even if the local appeals process was a superior method for resolving the issue, due process does not require superior process -- only constitutionally adequate process.

Judge Hamilton concurred with the majority's treatment of the due process claims but dissented from its treatment of the takings claim. He relied on the "vested rights" theory that the majority concluded was inadequately presented. Judge Hamilton surveyed the "long and winding history" of the concept in American law. Under the concept, an existing and lawful property use is a critical consideration in a takings claim. Judge Hamilton thus addressed the three factors quite differently than did the majority. First, the nature of the government interference is significant in that it prohibited a long time existing and lawful property use. Second, the economic impact appears to be significant although unclear on the pleadings. Third, although Bettendorf did agree to the condition, the withdrawal of permission substantially interfered with his investment expectations. Judge Hamilton recognized that his consent to the condition limited his expectations to continued commercial use only as long as he owns the property and would thus negatively affect any compensation due.