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St. Charles Tower, Inc v. Robert Kurtz; Paul Phillips; David Geile; Lawrence J. Kettenbach; Mary

June 28, 2011

ST. CHARLES TOWER, INC., APPELLEE,
v.
ROBERT KURTZ; PAUL PHILLIPS; DAVID GEILE; LAWRENCE J. KETTENBACH; MARY KETTENBACH, APPELLANTS, COUNTY OF FRANKLIN, MISSOURI; FRANKLIN COUNTY BOARD OF ZONING ADJUSTMENT, DEFENDANTS.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gruender, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: January 14, 2011

Before COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

St. Charles Tower, Inc., filed suit against Franklin County, Missouri, and Franklin County's Board of Zoning Adjustment after they declined to issue St. Charles Tower a conditional use permit necessary to construct a proposed cell-phone tower in Franklin County. St. Charles Tower alleged that the denial of the conditional use permit violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Before the case went to trial, the parties agreed to a consent judgment that required the issuance of the conditional use permit, as well as "any other permits necessary for [St. Charles Tower] to begin construction of its proposed facility." After the district court entered the consent judgment, Robert Kurtz, Paul Phillips, and David Geile, trustees of a homeowners' association that opposes construction of the tower ("Intervenors"), sought to intervene in the litigation in order to challenge the consent judgment on the grounds that it violated state law. The district court granted their motion to intervene but denied their motion to alter, amend, or vacate the consent judgment. The Interveners now appeal the district court's adverse ruling on their motion for relief from the consent judgment. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse.

I. BACKGROUND

In 2008, St. Charles Tower applied for a conditional use permit to build a cell-phone tower in Franklin County. The County's Planning and Zoning Commission denied the application, and St. Charles Tower appealed to the Board of Zoning Adjustment ("Board"). The Board denied the appeal in a written decision, offering only a single justification for its denial: "the proposed location of the tower would primarily serve areas outside of Franklin County, not providing an adequate amount of benefit to Franklin County residents."

St. Charles Tower filed suit against the Board and Franklin County, claiming, inter alia, that the Board's decision violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 ("TCA"). Congress enacted the TCA in part to reduce impediments to the development of telecommunication facilities imposed by local governments. USCOC of Greater Iowa, Inc. v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 465 F.3d 817, 820 (8th Cir. 2006). However, the TCA preserves "the authority of local zoning boards 'over decisions regarding the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities,'" id. (quoting 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(A)), so long as any decision of these local boards to deny a request to construct a personal wireless service facility is "in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record," § 332(c)(7)(B)(iii). The TCA authorizes any person adversely affected by a non-compliant local-government decision to challenge the decision in any court of competent jurisdiction. § 332(c)(7)(B)(v).

In its suit, St. Charles Tower alleged that the Board's denial of a conditional use permit was not supported by substantial evidence because the denial was not based on a permissible justification. Section 54 of Franklin County's Unified Land Use Regulations ("Land Use Regulations") provides that a completed application for a conditional use permit that otherwise complies with all applicable regulations can only be denied for one of four specified reasons. St. Charles Tower claimed that none of these reasons plausibly includes the Board's stated justification, that the proposed tower would "not provid[e] an adequate amount of benefit to Franklin County residents."

Nearly five months after the lawsuit was filed, Kurtz, Phillips, and Geile, trustees of the homeowners' association of the subdivision in which St. Charles Tower proposed to build the cell-phone tower, filed a motion for permissive intervention under Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(b). A day later, St. Charles Tower, the Board, and Franklin County filed a joint motion for consent judgment. On November 17, 2009, the district court denied Intervenors' motion to intervene because it was untimely and did not include a pleading "that sets out the claim or defense for which intervention is sought." Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(c). In the same order, the district court granted the joint motion for consent judgment and entered the proposed consent judgment. The consent judgment stipulated to the entry of judgment in favor of St. Charles Tower on the TCA counts and also entered judgment in favor of St. Charles Tower on several of its prayers for relief, which resulted in the issuance of "[a]n expedited mandatory injunction or writ in the nature of mandamus compelling Franklin County to issue a Conditional Use Permit, and any other permits necessary for [St. Charles Tower] to begin construction of its proposed facility."

Two days after judgment was entered, Intervenors filed a motion for intervention of right under Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(a) and for relief from the consent judgment.*fn1 The motion included a proposed complaint that alleged, inter alia, that the consent judgment impermissibly circumvented state procedural protections and accordingly violated the Due Process Clause. The district court found that the Intervenors had satisfied the requirements for intervention of right and granted the motion to intervene. It requested further briefing on the question of whether the consent judgment should be altered or set aside under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e) or 60(b). After further briefing, the district court denied the motion for relief from the consent judgment, holding that the consent judgment's remedy did not violate state law. The court further held that even if the consent judgment did violate state law, the Board's denial of the conditional use permit had violated the TCA and the consent judgment's remedy was necessary to correct this violation of federal law.

II. DISCUSSION

Intervenors appeal the district court's refusal to vacate the consent judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).*fn2 Rule 60(b) gives the district court authority to vacate a final judgment for reasons such as mistake, newly discovered evidence, fraud, or "any other reason that justifies relief." A district court's denial of a motion under Rule 60(b) is reviewed for abuse of discretion.United States v. Metro. St. Louis Sewer Dist., 440 F.3d 930, 935 (8th Cir. 2006). "Abuse of discretion occurs if the district court rests its conclusion on clearly erroneous factual findings or if its decision relies on erroneous legal conclusions." MIF Realty L.P. v. Rochester Assocs., 92 F.3d 752, 755 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Hosna v. Groose, 80 F.3d 298, 303 (8th Cir. 1996)).

Intervenors argue that the consent judgment violates Missouri law because it compels the Board and Franklin County to issue a conditional use permit without following the procedures specified in the Land Use Regulations. Moreover, they argue that the relief granted by the consent judgment was not necessary to rectify the alleged violation of the TCA and that, consequently, the violation of state law cannot be excused on the ground that the state laws are overridden by federal law. Intervenors also contend that the district court should have automatically vacated the consent judgment when it granted them intervention of right. Finally, they argue that the consent judgment cannot stand because the district court mechanistically rubber stamped the proposed judgment even though it is not fair, reasonable, or adequate, and is manifestly unjust.

"While parties can settle their litigation with consent decrees, they cannot agree to 'disregard valid state laws.'" Perkins v. City of Chicago Heights, 47 F.3d 212, 216 (7th Cir. 1995) (quoting People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ. Sch. Dist. No. 205, 961 F.2d 1335, 1337 (7th Cir. 1992)); see also League of Residential Neighborhood Advocates v. City of L.A., 498 F.3d 1052, 1056 (9th Cir. 2007) ("Municipalities may not waive or consent to a violation of their zoning laws, which are enacted for the benefit of the public."); Cleveland Cnty. Ass'n for Gov't by the People v. Cleveland Cnty. Bd. of Comm'rs, 142 F.3d 468, 478 (D.C. Cir. 1998) ("The Cleveland County Board of Commissioners is, like any other party, free to choose settlement of a suit over the threat of prolonged litigation. But like any other party, it may not do so in a manner that disregards applicable state law. The county's failure to abide by this principle . . . renders the consent ...


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