NM Court of Appeals explains how to resolve land-use conflicts between state governmental bodies

What should courts do when governmental entities have land use fights?

The Legislature created the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority to construct a water delivery system from the Ute Reservoir to nearby local governments. The Authority planned to construct a facility within the Village of Logan, but when it decided to expand the project, the Village told the Authority that its plans would violate the Village’s zoning ordinance, and that the Authority needed to apply for a special use permit.

The Authority said that the Village’s zoning ordinance did not apply to it, and refused to seek the special use permit. Of course, litigation followed, and the trial court agreed that the Authority was immune from the Village’s ordinance.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. As Judge Hanisee explained, when state government entities are in conflict over land use, lower courts should apply the “statutory guidance test,” which means that courts should “review the statutory powers assigned to each entity to ascertain whether the Legislature intended that one entity’s local zoning ordinances apply to the other entity’s activities.” See Village of Logan v. Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority (July 6, 2015).

The Court adopted this test based on the primary importance of giving effect to legislative intent. In this case allowing the Village to enforce its zoning ordinance against the Authority would interfere with the Legislature’s intent that the Authority construct a water delivery system that would serve a large area of the state.

The Court rejected the Village’s argument that the “balancing of factors” test should apply, which would require courts to consider not only the statutes governing the entities, but a host of other factors. Other New Mexico cases gave precedence to the Legislature’s intent, and the “statutory guidance test” is more consistent with that principle.

I think this result is correct. A focus on statutory language makes it more likely that the Legislature’s intent will be carried out. That should be the goal, because the Legislature is responsible for setting policy. And if a trial court gets it wrong, an appellate court can correct it via de novo review.

On the other hand, applying a mushy, free-wheeling, multi-factor test could tempt judges to apply their own policy preferences, and lead to inconsistent results that would be more difficult to correct on appeal, since multi-factor tests are often reviewed under a more deferential abuse-of-discretion standard.

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