Forgive developer Martin Harstad if he thought he was in Potterville and not Woodbury when the city told him he had to pay nearly $1.4 million in “road assessments” as a condition of approval for his “Bailey Park” residential development. Harstad sued Woodbury to challenge its authority to demand the road assessments and won in both the trial court, and now the Minnesota Court of Appeals in a published decision released September 18.
For now, it’s a wonderful life for Harstad, other developers and for property owners who have been troubled for years over whether Minnesota cities have the power to condition development approvals on the payment of (frequently hefty) fees for future road improvements to accommodate new growth and development. Here, the court of appeals struck down what amounted to an impact fee assessed by Woodbury, but sidestepped the longstanding question of whether impact fees are legal in Minnesota.
As is the case for other developers, Harstad was already paying significant amounts for transportation infrastructure that would be needed within the Bailey Park development. Woodbury attempted to rationalize its road assessment policy by declaring that new development must not only “pay its own way,” but also pay “all associated costs” for “public infrastructure.” This meant, according to the city, that if a proposed development is perceived as contributing to the need for unspecified, offsite road improvements at unspecified locations outside the development, at unspecified points in the future, then road assessments under the city’s formula must be imposed and collected now as a condition of approval for the development.
The court of appeals said that Woodbury can only exercise powers conferred by the state legislature and that Woodbury overstepped its powers here. The court said of the statute on which the city pinned its hopes for upholding the assessment (Minn. Stat. Sec. 462.358, subd. 2a): “In fact, subd. 2a does not authorize collection of any type of assessment. Rather subd. 2a authorizes city planning.”
While Woodbury called its fees “major road assessments,” these types of charges have a variety of names, including “transportation improvement district fees,” “trip charges” and “transportation fees.” The name may vary, but the purpose is the same: cities are seeking to capture revenues for anticipated future upgrades to area roads to accommodate growth from new development. Regardless of a particular city’s label, the commonly-recognized name for this revenue-raising practice is “impact fee.”
Impact fees were defined by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Country Joe, Inc. v. City of Eagan, 560 N.W.2d 681, 685 (Minn. 1997), as fees: (a) in the form of a predetermined money payment; (b) assessed as a condition to the issuance of a permit or plat approval; (c) justified as within local government powers to regulate new growth and development and to provide for adequate infrastructure; (d) levied to fund large-scale, off-site public facilities and services necessary to serve new development; and (e) in an amount proportionate to the need for the public facilities generated by new development. Country Joe did not clearly decide, however, whether impact fees were illegal in Minnesota.
The court in Harstad did not address whether Woodbury’s road assessment was an impact fee, or whether impact fees are legally authorized in Minnesota. [This blogger made the case that such fees are not legally authorized in Minnesota in a March 2009 article in Hennepin Lawyer entitled “Road Improvements: When Are Special Assessments Legitimate?”
The court of appeals in Harstad also did not address whether Woodbury’s road assessment was an illegal tax. Country Joe held that the City of Eagan’s “Road unit connection charge” was an illegal tax under state law that limits municipal taxing powers. The court of appeals in Harstad did not address the illegal tax issue because it was raised only by amicus parties and not by either of the parties to the litigation. The City of Woodbury has until October 18 to decide whether to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court for review.