Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Zoning, Planning & Land Use
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In 1938, West’s predecessor granted Louisville Gas & Electric’s predecessor a perpetual easement permitting a 248-foot-tall tower carrying high-voltage electric lines. In 1990, Louisville sought permission to allow Charter Communication install on the towers a fiber-optic cable that carries communications (telephone service, cable TV service, and internet data); West refused. In 2000 Louisville concluded that the existing easement allows the installation of wires that carry photons (fiber-optic cables) along with the wires that carry electrons. West disagreed and filed suit, seeking compensation. The Seventh Circuit affirmed that the use that Louisville and Charter have jointly made of the easement is permissible under Indiana law. The court cited 47 U.S.C. 541(a)(2), part of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which provides: Any franchise shall be construed to authorize the construction of a cable system over public rights-of-way, and through easements, which is within the area to be served by the cable system and which have been dedicated for compatible uses, except that in using such easements the cable operator shall ensure…. The court examined the language of the easement and stated: “At least the air rights have been “dedicated” to transmission, and a telecom cable is “compatible” with electric transmission. Both photons and electrons are in the electromagnetic spectrum.” View "West v. Charter Communications, Inc." on Justia Law

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Years of heavy industrial use at Wisconsin's Badger Army Ammunition Plant contaminated the soil and groundwater with asbestos, lead paint, PCBs, and oil. Operations ceased in 1975. Remediation has yielded thousands of acres suitable for recreational use. The National Park Service donated 3,000 acres to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. An environmental group sued to halt three activities at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area: dog training for hunting, off-road motorcycle riding, and helicopter drills by the Wisconsin National Guard citing the Property and Administrative Services Act, which controls deeds issued through the Federal Land to Parks Program, 40 U.S.C. 550. The Act requires the government to enforce the terms of its deeds and that the land be used for recreational purposes. The relevant deeds require that Wisconsin use the park for its originally intended purposes. Dog training and motorcycle riding were not mentioned in Wisconsin’s initial application. The group also argued that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. 4321, required an environmental impact statement. The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment. Dog training and off-road motorcycle riding were not mentioned in the application, but are recreational uses. While helicopter training is not recreational, the Service included an explicit deed provision reserving the right to continue the flights, as authorized by the Property Act. The Service reasonably concluded that its approval of dog training and motorcycle riding fell within a NEPA categorical exclusion for minor amendments to an existing plan. The Service was not required to prepare an environmental impact statement for helicopter training because it had no authority to discontinue the flights. View "Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance v. United States Department of the Interior" on Justia Law

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A Downers Grove ordinance limits the size and location of signs. Leibundguth claimed that it violated the First Amendment because its exceptions were unjustified content discrimination. The ordinance does not require permits for holiday decorations, temporary signs for personal events such as birthdays, “[n]oncommercial flags,” or political and noncommercial signs that do not exceed 12 square feet, “[m]emorial signs and tablets.” The Seventh Circuit upheld the ordinance. Leibundguth is not affected by the exceptions. Leibundguth’s problems come from the ordinance’s size and surface limits: One is painted on a wall, which is prohibited; another is too large; a third wall has two signs that vastly exceed the limit of 159 square feet for Leibundguth’s building. The signs would fare no better if they were flags or carried a political message. A limit on the size and presentation of signs is a standard time, place, and manner rule. The Supreme Court has upheld aesthetic limits that justified without reference to the content or viewpoint of speech, serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample channels for communication. The Village gathered evidence that signs painted on walls tend to deteriorate faster than other signs. Many people believe that smaller signs are preferable. Absent content or viewpoint discrimination, that aesthetic judgment supports the legislation, which leaves open ample ways to communicate. View "Leibundguth Storage & Van Service, Inc. v. Village of Downers Grove" on Justia Law

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Valbruna purchased the steel mill at a 2004 bankruptcy auction and began cleanup efforts under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 42 U.S.C. 6901. In 2000, Slater, the site’s then-owner, had unsuccessfully sued Joslyn, which had owned and operated the site from 1928-1981, in state court seeking indemnification under the parties’ contract and costs under Indiana’s Environmental Legal Actions (ELA) statute. In 2010, Valbruna sued Joslyn under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9613(b), and ELA. Joslyn’s fault is undisputed. Joslyn raised claim-preclusion, statute-of-limitations, and contribution defenses. The district court found that the CERCLA claim was not precluded, but the ELA claim was, and that the suit was timely. The court imposed equitable contribution on Valbruna, requiring it to pay for 25% of past and future cleanup costs. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, agreeing that the CERCLA claim was not precluded. If there is no state-court jurisdiction to hear an exclusively federal claim, there is no claim preclusion. The claim was not barred as being filed more than six years after the start of “remedial action.” Slater’s earlier cleanup was “removal.” While the 25% imposition on a no-fault owner "reached the limits" of the court's discretion, there was no abuse of that discretion. Valbruna understood the site’s pollution problems before purchasing it and apparently paid far less than the asking price; the court was rationally concerned about a windfall for Valbruna. View "Valbruna Slater Steel Corp. v. Joslyn Manufacturing Co." on Justia Law

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The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of a class action suit challenging the red light camera program of the Village of Lakemoor. Plaintiffs alleged that the violation notices they received were invalid because the notices lack a proper municipal code citation, and that Lakemoor denied them due process by limiting the defenses that can be asserted before a hearing officer to contest a violation. The court held that the process that plaintiffs received was constitutionally sufficient and therefore they have failed to state a federal due process claim. The court also held that plaintiffs' argument that the violation notices were void ab initio failed as a matter of law, because the "specific reference" provision was directory rather than mandatory. Accordingly, plaintiffs' unjust enrichment claim also failed. View "Knutson v. Village of Lakemoor" on Justia Law

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GEFT began building a digital billboard on its Westfield, Indiana property without the requisite city sign permit. The ordinance prohibits “off-premise signs” directing attention to a specific business, product, service, entertainment, or any other activity offered, sold, or conducted elsewhere and prohibits “pole signs” that are not attached to or supported by any building. GEFT did obtain a state permit but believed Westfield’s sign standards ordinance contained unconstitutional content‐based speech restrictions. GEFT stopped installing the billboard when a contract attorney working for Westfield threatened to arrest GEFT’s representatives. The district court denied GEFT’s motion for an injunction and granted Westfield’s motion. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. GEFT had challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance under the First Amendment, but its preliminary injunction motion focused solely on its due process claim. There is no constitutional procedural due process right to state‐mandated procedures; the fact that the Stop Work Notices did not comply with ordinance procedures cannot support a procedural due process claim. Neither local nor state law authorizes the arrest of anyone violating a municipal ordinance; even if the attorney is considered an employee of Westfield, GEFT has no evidence Westfield authorized those threats or could have predicted he would make them. Although the threats of arrest were inappropriate, they “are a far cry from the type of conduct recognized as conscience‐shocking” for purposes of a substantive due process claim. View "GEFT Outdoors, LLC v. Westfield" on Justia Law

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The church converted a single-family residence in a Markham residential district into its house of worship. For more than 15 years, the congregation gathered at the house for worship services, choir rehearsals, and Bible studies. As the church grew, it remodeled the house,w which brought the church into contact with the city’s administration through permit applications and property inspections. The city denied a conditional use permit and sought a state court injunctions. The church challenged the zoning code under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc (RLUIPA), and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The district court ordered the church to apply for variances, which the city granted, along with a conditional use permit. The court then granted the city summary judgment, ruling the church’s claims were not ripe when filed and rendered moot. The Seventh Circuit reversed. The district court focused on the church not applying for parking variances before the lawsuit; that issue is related only tangentially to the church’s claims, which concern zoning use classifications. The ripeness of the church’s claims does not hinge on pursuit of parking variances that will not resolve them. Nor can a conditional use permit moot the church’s claim that such a permit is not needed. The key question is whether operating a church on the property is a permitted or conditional use. View "Church of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ v. Markham" on Justia Law

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A six month delay between a property inspection and notice of a municipal ordinance citation does not violate due process. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's amended complaint for failure to state a procedural due process claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The court held that the administrative and judicial proceedings available for plaintiff to challenge her citation for growing weeds greater than 10 inches tall in her garden satisfied due process, and the accuracy of the city's interpretation of its ordinance did not implicate the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, plaintiff failed to allege facts supporting a plausible violation of her due process rights. The court rejected plaintiff's alternative theory that the city misinterpreted the ordinance's plain text. View "Tucker v. City of Chicago" on Justia Law

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In 2005, World Outreach, a Christian religious organization, purchased a Chicago building from the YMCA, which had operated a community center and 168 single-room occupancies (SROs) for 80 years. The community center was a “legal nonconforming use,” which, under Chicago’s zoning ordinance, “is not affected by changes of tenancy, ownership, or management.” The city nonetheless insisted that a Special Use Permit was required. While the city was unlawfully withholding licenses, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Thousands of residents were evacuated and transplanted. WO claimed that it had a verbal agreement with Federal Emergency Management Agency to use the SRO rooms at $750 per room, per month, for one year, but never received any evacuees. The city sued WO for operating the community center without a permit but later voluntarily dismissed. WO then sued the city, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc. In August 2007, the city issued the licenses. Following a remand, the district court granted WO summary judgment on its claim for defending the frivolous lawsuit, awarding $15,000, but rejected all other claims. On remand of the RLUIPA claim regarding the city’s unlawful deprivation of the licenses. WO ultimately reduced its damages claim from $2.44 million to $363,000 in February 2016. In April 2016, the city made an offer of judgment of $25,001 “plus reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.” WO accepted and sought $1,913,929.20 in attorney’s fees. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s modification of the lodestar to $1,559,991.50, application of a 70% across-the-board reduction, and award of $467,973.45, noting that the award of $40,001 was a “dismal failure” in contrast to the damages sought for nearly nine years. View "World Outreach Conference Center v. City of Chicago" on Justia Law

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In 2006 Conway contracted to sell land in Broadview to Donahue, who assigned the contract to Chicago Joe’s Tea Room, LLC. Chicago Joe’s sole manager applied for the required special-use permit. Broadview denied the application in 2007. The land sale contract never closed and the planned strip club never opened. The LLC and Conway filed suit in 2007 alleging that Broadview violated the First Amendment. Broadview amended its ordinances multiple times during the lawsuit. One amendment led District Judge Gottschall, to conclude that Broadview’s amendment to its adult-use setback ordinance was “aimed solely at Chicago Joe’s.” After the case was transferred to Judge Lee, the parties litigated renewed summary judgment motions. Judge Lee granted Broadview summary judgment on Chicago Joe’s declaratory judgment and injunction claims, but denied summary judgment on the damages claim. The Seventh Circuit concluded that the claim for injunctive relief that established interlocutory appellate jurisdiction is actually moot, and affirmed its dismissal. At every stage of the process, Chicago Joe’s has proposed a use of property prohibited by then-current local law, so it has no vested rights. Since 2007, Chicago Joe’s has proposed to use the property in a way prohibited by Illinois statute, without challenging that statute. View "Chicago Joe's Tea Room, LLC v. Village of Broadview" on Justia Law