Appeal from the District Court of the Fifth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Camas County. Hon. Robert J. Elgee, District Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Horton, Justice.
The district court order vacating the Board's findings of fact and conclusions of law is affirmed. The district court's award of attorney fees is reversed.
This appeal arises from a petition for judicial review of the Camas County Board of Commissioners' (Board) decision to approve a preliminary subdivision plat. The district court held that the Board's findings of fact and conclusions of law did not amount to a reasoned statement as required by I.C. § 67-6535 and that the lack of a reasoned statement violated the petitioners' substantial right to due process. The district court also held that the Board erroneously interpreted a number of Camas County Ordinances. The district court awarded attorney fees to petitioners. The Board timely appealed. We affirm the district court's order vacating the Board's findings and conclusions but we reverse the district court's award of attorney fees.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Developer Patrick Dunn (Dunn) submitted an application to develop the Fricke Creek Subdivision (the subdivision) to the Camas County Planning and Zoning Commission (the Commission). The subdivision originally consisted of fifteen residential lots on an existing road, Fricke Creek Road. Fricke Creek Road was the only road in the subdivision, and it connected to a public road, Baseline Road, at its west end. Fricke Creek Road connects Dunn's property to Baseline Road via an easement that crosses parcels of real property owned by Stephen Jasso (Jasso) and Curtis and Camie Gorringe (Gorringes). Dunn's original proposal called for the eastern end of Fricke Creek Road to terminate in a loop that swept to the edge of the proposed subdivision near adjacent, undeveloped property.
The Commission held public hearings on Dunn's subdivision application, at which Jasso and the Gorringes expressed their concerns regarding the application. In particular, Jasso and the Gorringes raised three concerns: They contended, first, that the proposed subdivision lacked required access to a public road because the easement providing for ingress and egress to Dunn's property was private and could not be expanded to permit subdivision access; second, that lengthy Fricke Creek Road was a cul-de-sac street, because it was attached to another road at only one end and allowed for vehicles to turn around at its eastern terminus, and was therefore subject to a five-hundred foot length limitation imposed by a Camas County ordinance; and third, that the subdivision application was incomplete because it did not address flood mitigation, even though Fricke Creek ran through the proposed subdivision and was subject to periodic flooding.
The Commission initially recommended the Board deny the application because of the "quality of the easement" and the likelihood that Fricke Creek Road was an illegal cul-de-sac. The Board deliberated and remanded the application to the Commission, directing Dunn to modify the plat by changing Fricke Creek Road's terminus from a loop to a hammerhead configuration. The hammerhead terminus would permit vehicles to turn around until Fricke Creek Road was extended to connect to another public road. Dunn modified the proposal as directed and the Commission held another public hearing. The Commission recommended the Board approve the amended subdivision application.
The Board issued findings of fact and conclusions of law approving the preliminary subdivision plat on several conditions, including that Fricke Creek Road (including that portion traversing the easement) be built to county specifications, that Fricke Creek Road terminate in a hammerhead terminus, and that the developer satisfy a provision of the Camas County Subdivision Ordinance (Subdivision Ordinance) that requires subdivisions to have access to a public street or road. The Board's findings and conclusions did not address the applicability of the floodplain provisions.
Jasso and the Gorringes petitioned for judicial review of the Board's decision, contending that the Board erred by approving the application and that the Board's findings and conclusions were insufficient to satisfy the requirements of I.C. § 67-6535. The district court granted Jasso's motion to bifurcate issues of law from issues of fact because the majority of the issues advanced by petitioners were questions of law which could be resolved without the expense of transcript production. The district court further held that the parties could later apply for an order for preparation of a transcript of the proceedings below. Following oral argument, the district court entered an order finding that Fricke Creek Road was a cul-de-sac and therefore, due to its length, violated the Camas County ordinance. The court also held that the Board's decision was arbitrary and capricious because its findings and conclusions were inadequate under I.C. § 67- 6535 and violated Jasso's and the Gorringes' substantial right to due process. The court found Jasso and the Gorringes to be the prevailing parties, awarded them attorney fees, and ordered that the application be remanded to the Board for proceedings consistent with its order. The Board timely appealed.
Under the Local Land Use Planning Act, I.C. §§ 67-6501 et seq., one who is adversely affected by "[t]he approval, denial, or failure to act upon an application for a subdivision . . ." may seek judicial review by a district court. I.C. § 67-6521(1)(a)(i), (1)(d); I.R.C.P. 84.
The reviewing court must vacate and remand for further agency action if "the agency's findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are (a) in violation of constitutional or statutory provisions; (b) in excess of the statutory authority of the agency; (c) made upon unlawful procedure; (d) not supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole; or (e) arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion." I.C. § 67-5279(3). Remand is only appropriate if an error prejudiced the appellant's substantial rights. I.C. § 67-5279(4); Vickers v. Lowe, 150 Idaho 439, ___, 247 P.3d 666, 669 (2011).
An agency's findings of fact will stand if supported by substantial and competent, although conflicting, evidence in the record. Terrazas v. Blaine Cnty., 147 Idaho 193, 196, 207 P.3d 169, 172 (2009). Conclusions of law are subject to free review, but there is a strong presumption in favor of a zoning board's interpretation of its own zoning ordinances. Id. As this is an appeal from a district court's decision, we review the district court's decision as a matter of procedure. St. Luke's Magic Valley Reg'l Med. Ctr., Ltd. v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Gooding Cnty., 149 Idaho 584, 587, 237 P. 3d 1210, 1213 (2010).
A. The Board's written findings of fact and conclusions of law failed to satisfy the requirements of I.C. § 67-6535 and prejudiced Jasso's and the Gorringes'
substantial right to due process.
Idaho Code § 67-6535(2) provides:
The approval or denial of any application required or authorized pursuant to this chapter shall be in writing and accompanied by a reasoned statement that explains the criteria and standards considered relevant, states the relevant contested facts relied upon, and explains the rationale for the decision based on the applicable provisions of the comprehensive plan, relevant ordinance and statutory provisions, pertinent constitutional principles and factual information contained in the record.
In order to satisfy I.C. § 67-6535, a local decision-maker must articulate in writing both (1) the facts found and conclusions reached and (2) the rationale underlying those findings and conclusions.
The requirement of meaningful administrative findings serves important functions, including "facilitating judicial review, avoiding judicial usurpation of administrative functions, assuring more careful administrative consideration, helping parties plan their cases for rehearing and judicial review and keeping within their jurisdiction." Idaho Underground Water Users Ass'n v. Idaho Power Co., 89 Idaho 147, 156, 404 P.2d 859, 863 (1965) (quoting 2 Davis, Administrative Law § 16.05 (1958)).
We have repeatedly held local decision-makers to the standard set forth by I.C. § 67- 6535. In Crown Point Development, Inc. v. City of Sun Valley, the purported findings of the city council were merely recitations of portions of the record, rather than determinations of the facts disputed by the parties. 144 Idaho 72, 77-78, 156 P.3d 573, 578-79 (2007). This Court found the "findings" to be inadequate. Id. In Workman Family Partnership v. City of Twin Falls, the city council's factual findings explained that a rezone application was denied because the rezone imposed "[t]oo great a change," would devalue nearby residential properties, and "would violate the integrity of existing residential zoning districts." 104 Idaho 32, 37, 655 P.2d 926, 931 (1982). We held that "[t]he reasons listed for the denial of the application . . . are basically conclusions. Nothing . . . reveals the underlying facts or policies that were considered by the Council. The reasons listed . . . provide very little insight into the Council's decision." 104 Idaho at 38, 655 P.2d at 932. In Cooper v. Board of County Commissioners of Ada County, the Court held that a board of county commissioners' findings and conclusions, supplemented by a staff report that stated some of the shortcomings for which the application was denied, were inadequate where the board denied the application "because of items 1, 2, 3 and 4 and Agricultural Policies No. 4 and No. 5 and also because of the school district." 101 Idaho 407, 408-09, 614 P.2d 947, 948-49 (1980). These cases demonstrate that the reasoned statement must plainly state the resolution of factual disputes, identify the evidence supporting that factual determination, and explain the basis for legal conclusions, including identification of the pertinent laws and/or regulations upon which the legal conclusions rest.
The Board relies on language found in I.C. § 67-6535(3)*fn1 and Evans v. Teton County, 139 Idaho 71, 73 P.3d 84 (2003), for the proposition that a reviewing court that assesses the adequacy of written findings and conclusions may overlook otherwise inadequate findings and conclusions if the record contains substantial, competent evidence to support the decision- maker's findings and conclusions. In Evans, this Court upheld as adequate a board of commissioners' findings and conclusions, stating "[w]hile the Board of Commissioners would be better served by more specifically and extensively articulating its findings of fact and conclusions, the required information can be found in the record produced during the application process." 139 Idaho at 80-81, 73 P.3d at 93-94. The findings and conclusions in Evans did not consist of mere bald conclusions, but rather addressed the applicable laws and explained the manner in which the approved zone change would comply with those laws. Id. at 80, 73 P.3d at 93. Thus, ...