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BJ Hough, LLC v. City of Cheyenne

November 1, 2012


Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Michael K. Davis, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hill, Justice.

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN,*fn2 HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] After Swan Ranch was annexed by the City of Cheyenne ("the City") in 2009, the Appellants herein filed a declaratory judgment action against the City alleging that the annexation was invalid under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 15-1-402(a). Ultimately, the district court granted the City's responding summary judgment argument on two claims and conducted trial on the third and final claim. Following trial, the district court found the annexation was proper. This appeal followed.


[¶2] We restate the Appellants' issues as a single question: Did the district court err in finding the annexation ordinance valid?


[¶3] In September of 2008, Swan Ranch, LLC, filed a petition to annex approximately 150 acres of land to the City. Swan Ranch is undeveloped property and is "open space" generally used for grazing livestock. The property is not serviced by the City with sewer, water, or sanitation. The owner of Swan Ranch had agreed with an outside developer that it would apply for annexation to the Cheyenne City Council. In return, the developer paid Swan Ranch's annexation expenses. On January 12, 2009, after public hearings and findings from the Urban Planning Director for the City, City Ordinance No. 3840 was adopted on January 12, 2009 annexing the Swan Ranch land to the City.

[¶4] In response to the annexation, neighbors to the land being annexed, herein the Appellants, filed an "Appeal Pursuant to W.S. 15-1-409 and Complaint for Declaratory Judgment" against the City on March 6, 2009. The Appellants amended said complaint on March 18, 2009 to add the names of two parties. The complaint contained three claims for relief: In their first and third claims, the Appellants alleged that a Cheyenne City ordinance constituted an exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 15-3-202(b)(ii) (LexisNexis 2011).

[¶5] On June 1, 2010 the City filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Appellants' first and third claims, and on July 19, 2010 the Appellants filed their response opposing that summary judgment motion asking the court "whether the City exercised extraterritorial jurisdiction over lands adjacent to the annexed property so as to require compliance with certain notice and platting requirements contained in Wyoming annexation statutes" and whether the City had properly prepared its annexation map. After some consideration, the district court granted the City's motion for partial summary judgment stating in its decision letter that the City had properly given notice and properly prepared its map. Thus, the first and third claims were disposed of, and those claims remain unchallenged on appeal.

[¶6] Regarding the single remaining issue -- whether the City had met the statutory requirements for annexation under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 15-1-402 -- the district court held a bench trial. Following the three-day trial, the court found in the City's favor stating that it had met the statutory requirements necessary for annexation. This appeal followed. More facts will be discussed as necessary in the discussion to follow.


[¶7] Although Appellants present two claims to this Court, we see this appeal differently. Viewing it through our case law and statutory scheme, we distinguish the issue on appeal as a single question: whether the district court properly found in the City's favor that it had met the statutory requirements necessary for annexation or, stated another way, whether the district court properly decided the declaratory judgment action in the City's favor as to the validity of the ordinance.

[¶8] Given our limited review, the standard of review of this Court is typical of that of a bench trial:

Following a bench trial, this Court reviews a district court's findings and conclusions using a clearly erroneous standard for the factual findings and a de novo standard for the conclusions of law. Piroschak v. Whelan, 2005 WY 26, ¶ 7, 106 P.3d 887, 890 (Wyo. 2005) (citing Hansuld v. Lariat Diesel Corp., 2003 WY 165, ¶ 13, 81 P.3d 215, 218 (Wyo. 2003) and Rennard v. Vollmar, 977 P.2d 1277, 1279 (Wyo. 1999)).

The factual findings of a judge are not entitled to the limited review afforded a jury verdict. While the findings are presumptively correct, the appellate court may examine all of the properly admissible evidence in the record. Due regard is given to the opportunity of the trial judge to assess the credibility of the witnesses, and our review does not entail re-weighing disputed evidence. Findings of fact will not be set aside unless they are clearly erroneous. A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.

Piroschak, ¶ 7, 106 P.3d at 890. Findings may not be set aside because we would have reached a different result. Harber v. Jensen, 2004 WY 104, ¶ 7, 97 P.3d 57, 60 (Wyo. 2004). Further,

we assume that the evidence of the prevailing party below is true and give that party every reasonable inference that can fairly and reasonably be drawn from it. We do not substitute ourselves for the trial court as a finder of facts; instead, we defer to those findings unless they are unsupported by the record or erroneous as a matter of law.

Id. (quotation marks omitted) (some citations omitted).

Pennant Serv. Co. v. True Oil Co., LLC, 2011 WY 40, ¶ 7, 249 P.3d 698, 702-03 (Wyo. 2011).

[¶9] To explain our result and our limited review on appeal, we begin with our statutes and case law. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 15-1-409(a) (LexisNexis 2011) provides as follows:

(a) If any landowner in the territory proposed to be annexed or any owner of real property in the annexing city or town, or utility is aggrieved by the acts of the governing body, he may appeal to the district court for a review of the acts or findings thereof. [Emphasis added.]

(b) If the court determines that the action taken was capricious or arbitrary, or if it appears from the evidence that the landowner's right in his property is being unwarrantedly invaded or that the governing body abused its discretion, the court shall declare the annexing ordinance void. If the court determines the action of the governing body was proper and valid, it shall sustain the ordinance.

(c) All proceedings to review the findings and the decisions of the governing body or actions to determine the validity of the annexation ordinance pursuant to the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act shall be brought within sixty (60) days of the effective date of the annexation ordinance, and if not brought within that time are forever barred.

[¶10] This statute, in section (a), only provides for an appeal of the annexation ordinance to the district court only by aggrieved landowners in the territory to be annexed or within the city. Section (b) requires that the district court review the acts or findings of the city, and declare the ordinance void if it finds such to have been capricious, arbitrary, an unwarranted invasion of property rights, or an abuse of discretion. Further reading of the same statute, in section (c), shows that our statutory scheme requires the above-described appeal, as well as any declaratory judgment actions, to be brought within 60 days of the effective date of the ordinance.

[¶11] Applying this statute to the facts of this case preliminarily, we can immediately conclude that the Appellants herein were not qualified to appeal to the district court the City's decision to annex Swan Ranch, given that they are not landowners within the Swan Ranch boundary, nor are they landowners within the Cheyenne city limits. Cox v. City of Cheyenne, 2003 WY 146, ¶ 22, 79 P.3d 500, 508 (Wyo. 2003). Turning back to § 15-1-409, section (c) mentions declaratory judgment actions. That section does not, however, say who is entitled to bring a declaratory judgment action, which brings us back to the term "landowner" under § 15-1-409(a) as it applies here.

[¶12] We therefore must consider the status of these landowners within the Declaratory Judgment Act, which grants jurisdiction to the district court to entertain an action for a declaratory judgment to review municipal ordinances. Such jurisdiction is provided in the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-37-101 through 1-37-115 (LexisNexis 2011). Section 1-37-102 of the Act gives Wyoming courts the power to "declare rights, status and other legal relations." Section 1-37-103 provides as follows:

Any person interested under a deed, will, written contract or other writings constituting a contract, or whose rights, status or other legal relations are affected by the Wyoming constitution or by a statute, municipal ordinance, contract or franchise, may have any question of construction or validity arising under the instrument determined and obtain a declaration of rights, status or other legal relations. [Emphasis added.]

As quoted in Smith v. City of Santa Fe, 200-NMSC-055, ¶ 14, 171 P.3d 300, 305 (New Mexico 2007), the Declaratory Judgment Act is specifically designed to bring an action challenging the constitutionality or validity of local laws or ordinances. See, e.g., Balizer v. Shaver, 82 N.M 347, 349, 481 P.2d 709, 711 (Ct. App. 1971) (holding that declaratory proceedings are a proper avenue for testing the constitutionality of municipal ordinances); see also S. Nat'l Bank of Houston v. City of Austin, 582 S.W.2d 229, 237 (Tex. Civ. App. 1979) (finding declaratory judgment proper where property owners challenged city ordinance); Ind. Waste Systems, Inc. v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Howard County, 180 Ind. App. 385, 389 N.E.2d 52, 56 (1979) (holding that a declaratory judgment action was proper to challenge the validity of a county ordinance); Kmiec v. Town of Spider Lake, 60 Wis.2d 640, 211 N.W.2d 471, 473 (1973) (holding that a declaratory judgment action was a proper avenue for challenging the validity of an ordinance); Sorenson v. City of Bellingham, 80 Wash.2d 547, 496 P.2d 512, 517 (1972) ("The use of declaratory judgment to determine rights in this matter without a course of remedy is entirely appropriate."); Walker v. Los Angeles County, 55 Cal.2d 626, 12 Cal. Rptr. 671, 361 P.2d 247, 253 (1961) ("The interpretation of ordinances and statutes are proper matters for declaratory relief."). See generally 6 Eugene McQuillin, The Law of Municipal Corporations, § 20.23, at 72 (3d ed.); Bernard Schwartz, Administrative Law § 9.7, at 537 (2d ed. 1984) ("[T]he declaratory judgment has become the general-utility remedy by which the legality of an administrative act may be determined when there are no statutory review provisions, regardless of the nature of the challenged act.").

[¶13] Thus, under our statutes, the Appellants only have standing to bring a declaratory judgment action under § 1-37-103, to challenge the validity of an annexation ordinance. ("We thus find that nothing in § 15-1-409(a) evidences a legislative intent to preclude declaratory judgment actions challenging the validity of an annexation ordinance. Certainly, the only parties entitled to challenge the merits of the governing body's findings and decisions are those listed ...

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