Court Finds Landfill Ordinance Legit

A county solid waste ordinance that is tougher than state waste disposal laws is not unconstitutional simply because officials relied on legal and engineering advice in drafting the measure and allegedly yielded to organized public opposition to a landfill expansion, according to a federal appeals court (WMX Technologies Inc., et al. v. Gasconade County, Mo., No. 96-1179, 8th Cir., January 27, 1997).

In 1990, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a permit to Kahle Landfill Inc. to operate a landfill on a 10-acre parcel in Gasconade County. Two years later, Waste Management of Missouri (WMM), a subsidiary of WMX Technologies Inc., Oak Brook, Ill., bought a 160-acre tract that included the Kahle site. The company is the only solid waste collector licensed by DNR to operate a landfill in Gasconade County.

As the landfill was nearing capacity, WMM applied for a DNR permit to expand its operations to an additional 51 acres within the 160-acre tract. Indeed, the company spent more than $3 million in planning the proposed expansion and seeking a new permit.

In 1993, DNR held public hearings on the proposed expansion where WMM presented evidence showing that the proposed site was well-suited for landfill use. Opponents, however, including Gasco-nade County residents, attended the hearings and expressed their strong disapproval.

Meanwhile, county officials began thinking about an ordinance of their own to control landfills. The county prosecuting attorney teamed up with a local civil engineer and gathered copies of ordinances and regulations from other Missouri counties. After conferring with the attorney and engineer, the county commissioners enacted a solid waste management ordinance on December 12, 1994.

Three days later, WMM filed suit in federal district court claiming that the ordinance was illegal under Missouri law and the U.S. Constitution. The suit alleged that the county ordinance violated the company's substantive due process rights and constituted an illegal bill of attainer.

The ordinance regulates and restricts the storing, collecting, transporting, processing and disposing of solid, liquid, hazardous and special wastes. Under the ordinance, a disposal site operator must apply to the county commissioners for a permit. Significantly, WMM never applied for a county permit.

Under Missouri law, DNR cannot issue a landfill permit without confirmation that the applicant and the proposed activity fully comply with all applicable "local zoning, building and health codes, ordinances and orders." In December 1995, DNR denied WMM's permit application, citing the company's failure to comply with the county's permit requirements.

The district court dismissed the company's substantive due process and bill of attainer claims, and declined to rule on the state law claims. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling.

WMM argued that the ordinance "on its face" violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In short, no circumstances could exist where the ordinance would be constitutional. Thus, the company had to prove that the ordinance is arbitrary, capricious and not rationally related to a legitimate public purpose.

WMM claimed that the ordinance was particularly objectionable and "truly irrational." It cited onerous height restrictions, financial guarantees and a 50-year post closure care period. In addition, the company argued that the county abdicated its legislative responsibility by relying on the advice of an attorney and engineer and by yielding to the "unreasoned fears of the electorate." For good measure, it also claimed that the ordinance violated state solid waste laws.

The appeals court, however, rejected the company's arguments on substantive due process. A "truly irrational" ordinance, the court said, would apply, for example, only to persons whose names begin with certain letters in the alphabet. As for the methods and motives for passing an ordinance, the appeals court said that due process "does not require a legislative body to perform any particular studies or ... analysis" to justify its decisions.

Moreover, the court continued, the actual purpose for enactment of an ordinance is irrelevant. "We ask only whether a conceivable rational relationship exists between the ordinance and legitimate government ends," the opinion said. "We find as a matter of law that such a relationship exists in this case ...."

Finally, the court ruled that the ordinance did not amount to an unconstitutional bill of attainer - a law that singles out an individual for legislatively prescribed punishment without a trial. So long as the ordinance is aimed at specific activities, it is legally irrelevant that only one or two entities will be affected, the appeals court said. Furthermore, WMM never proved that the commissioners intended to punish the company for any past wrongdoings.