Verdict Vindicated

A Minnesota federal district court refused to set aside a jury verdict that found a county's zoning decisions, which were swayed by county-based landfill expansion needs, intentionally discriminated against interstate commerce.

The case stems from zoning decisions by Wright County that prevented Superior Landfill Inc. from expanding its landfill onto adjoining farmland. Under the county's zoning ordinance, Superior's proposed use was conditional, and the landfill was obliged to prepare an environmental assessment. Shortly before Superior completed the study, the county enacted a moratorium on various development, including landfill expansion. During the delay, the county enacted a new zoning ordinance that banned all waste handling on land zoned for agricultural use.

Superior filed an application to change the boundaries of the waste handling district to accommodate its expansion. The county planning commission held application hearings, receiving testimony and submissions from citizens and municipalities within the county and from Superior's representatives. The commission found that: a vertical expansion of Superior's existing landfill could handle all locally generated waste; the rezoning would allow Superior to accept out-of-county waste at the expense of agricultural land; and municipal officials opposed the rezoning. For its part, the county board of commissioners adopted the planning commission's findings and denied the application.

Superior filed suit in federal district court, alleging that the county's zoning regulations and other actions violated state and federal laws and constitutional protections, and illegally interfered with interstate commerce. The county denied Superior's allegations and insisted that its decisions were intended to protect the environment. The court dismissed Superior's claims except for the Commerce Clause allegation. Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict that the county's actions unlawfully discriminated against interstate commerce. The county filed a motion asking the trial judge to set aside the verdict or grant a new trial because the jurors acted contrary to the evidence.

The trial judge declined to second-guess the jury's finding of intentional discrimination. He cited evidence that county officials opposed the importation of out-of-county waste, fearing the expansion would “serve other counties and other states.” The jury could reasonably conclude that “county-based need was the determining variable in the county's permitting decisions,” the judge said. Indeed, Superior's expert witness explained that “a local-need-only policy chokes off interstate commerce nearly as effectively as an overt ban on the importation of waste,” the opinion noted.

Moreover, even if the jury believed the county's interests were legitimate, the record contained evidence from which the jury could conclude that the county had “several other [nondiscriminatory] means … to achieve those interests,” the judge added.

No appeal is planned. A settlement agreement has given Superior a license for the expansion in exchange for a release of damage claims against the county.

[Superior FCR Landfill Inc. v. Wright County, No. 98-1911, D.Minn., March 31, 2002]

The columnist is a Washington, D.C., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: [email protected].