The state Judicial Building.

The Iowa Supreme Court has overturned two lower court rulings that allowed the city of Des Moines to shut down a mobile home park which the city says violated zoning requirements and is unsafe.

The city argued the residents of the Oak Hill Mobile Home park have added decks, gardens and other additions that expanded the use of the park beyond the 1955 agreement that allowed it to continue operating despite zoning law changes.

This is the first time the Supreme Court has addressed the issue. It ruled the city of Des Moines failed to prove that the property owner had exceeded its legal nonconforming use or that it was necessary to enjoin the property owner from continued operation of the mobile home park for the safety of life or property.

Attorney Jim Nervig spoke to the justices on behalf of the park’s owner during oral arguments before the High Court in February. He said there are 39 concrete pads for mobile homes and only 30 homes in the park — so it has not expanded in use. “There was 77 years in which this park has served as a residential neighborhood. The city never before in 77 years contended that the park was an unsafe neighborhood,” Nervig said.

The city argued that vehicles, garbage bins and debris strewn about among the mobile homes make the park unsafe and the expansions of decks and other additions makes it harder for fire trucks to get to the homes.  Nervig argued the city had other ways to remedy those situations. He says the city could use municipal infraction citation against someone that includes a $750-a-day fine to get them to remove the debris without having to shut down the park.

Nervig said testimony from the city fire marshal only discussed in general concerns about safety and did not get specific to the individual mobile homes in the park. He says the city tried to go too far. “The city has a much less restrictive alternative,” Nervig says. “This is like going in and taking a nuclear bomb and blowing up a neighborhood.”

The Supreme Court ruling says even with the additions to the mobile homes the facility is still being used as a mobile home park in a manner that is not ” ‘substantially or entirely different’ from its original use” as agreed to in 1955. The court noted that other courts have held that replacing existing mobile homes with larger mobile homes results is an unlawful expansion of a nonconforming use, but says those cases are factually different from the material facts in this case. It says the city of Des Moines argued that Oak Hill in its entirety as a mobile home park has exceeded its nonconforming use and does not distinguish between the mobile home park in its entirety and each individual mobile home for enforcement purposes.

Here’s the ruling: Oak-Hill-Mobile-Home-PDF