MN Supreme Court backs neighbors in nursing home fight

The Minnesota Supreme Court today upheld Bloomington’s right to deny a permit for expansion of a senior care facility, a blow to some groups who said it gives neighbors of projects too much power.

A Hennepin County District Court had initially overturned Bloomington’s refusal — at the urging of neighbors — to grant a permit to RDNT to add a third building at its Martin Luther Manor and Meadow Woods Assisted Living campus, which presently consists of 137 units in its skilled nursing facility and 117 units in its assisted living facility. Another 67 assisted living apartments would be added.

But the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the lower court and today the Supreme Court agreed (pdf).

Those opposed to the expansion focused primarily on “the effect that the Campus’s existing traffic had on noise, safety, home values, and the general character of the neighborhood.”

“There is a factual basis in the record for the City to find that the proposed expansion would increase traffic on already busy streets,” Justice David Lillehaug wrote in his opinion.

For instance, one neighbor wrote about vehicles driving through crosswalks near the school, even though the crossing guards had their flags out. Another neighbor wrote about observing vehicles that sped and made U-turns.

Yet another neighbor wrote about the incredible amount of “traffic and noise” due to the large number of delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, shuttle buses, passenger cars, and garbage vehicles.

Thus, RDNT’s argument that the City relied on vague concerns for public health and welfare is simply unfounded: the City had in hand multiple traffic studies, the City engineer’s testimony regarding specific data, and detailed factual complaints from the neighborhood.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said allowing the neighbors to derail the project will make it harder to locate mental health services in communities.

“All too often when it comes to locating a treatment facility for children or adults with mental illnesses, the neighbors’ biased views take precedence over facts,” NAMI MN said in a legislative update.

Lillehaug turned the concern aside. “Our task in this case, like any other, is not to make legislative policy but to interpret and apply existing statutes, ordinances, and precedents,” he said.

Although he agreed with Lillehaug, Justice G. Barry Anderson noted RDNT has been in the neighborhood longer than the neighbors who are now complaining about traffic. Martin Luther Manor has been in business near Old Shakopee Road for more than 50 years.

And he cautioned against a growing trend by communities to refuse permits to companies, not because the use violates zoning ordinances, but because it violates a comprehensive plan for land use.

“The Legislature has continued to vacillate as to the legal weight accorded to comprehensive planning,” he wrote in a concurring opinion. “Unfortunately, it is not only the Legislature that has made hash out of the intersection of comprehensive planning, zoning, and property rights law; our case law is similarly equivocal on what standard should be used to grant or deny a conditional use permit in this context.”

“I have no difficulty envisioning a comprehensive plan that, depending on the political or ideological inclinations of the drafters, could include buzzwords such as ‘low carbon footprint’ or ‘environmental sensitivity,’ or vague
references to the promotion of economic development or any similar formulation,” he wrote.