Homestead Act trumps city ordinance

Iowa Bankruptcy Law, Mollie Pawlosky Iowa Commercial Litigation Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines, IA

Posted on 02/28/2017 at 10:21 AM by Mollie Pawlosky

As judgment debtor platting a homestead so as to comply with the half acre maximum allowed under Iowa’s homestead requirements may divide the parcel in a way that violates local zoning ordinances.

First American Bank obtained a judgment against Steven Golden. Golden’s lot totaled .94 of an acre. Golden filed a notice of homestead plat with the district court and attached a land survey with a legal description of the property he claimed as a homestead. Golden carved an irregular shape totaling .48 of an acre, leaving a .46-acre parcel that did not confirm with city zoning ordinances.  The bank asked the district court to establish the homestead’s boundaries. The court accepted Golden’s plat, and the bank appealed.

The Iowa Court of Appeals in First American Bank v. Urbandale Laser Wash, L.L.C., No. 16-0081 (Jan. 11, 2017) affirmed.  Homestead rights are “jealously guarded,” and the homestead statute is construed broadly and liberally. Since at least 1928, Iowa courts have allowed the area platted for a homestead to be in any shape or form and from any part of the whole tract. The Court of Appeals rejected the bank’s argument relying on an 1856 case, as the statute had since been amended. The appellate court also rejected a more recent bankruptcy court opinion which relied on non-Iowa jurisdictions.

A homestead is protected, except when there is a “special declaration of statute to the contrary.” No statutory provision at issue could be interpreted as a “special declaration.” It made no difference that the half acre limit existed when Golden bought the property, such that he “knew” of the non-compliant result. The homestead right was absolute, “platted in any shape.”

Interestingly, the appellate court specifically noted that the bank did not challenge the “obvious gerrymandering,” done by Golden when the homestead plat was prepared. In a footnote, the appellate court further noted that the “interesting,” issue of the marketability of the left over parcel was not before the court. Although hinting that these points could have been raised, possibly for a different outcome, the issues were not argued on appeal.

Stay tuned to see if the Court of Appeals’ decision is the last word; First American has sought further review with the Iowa Supreme Court. Considering the significance of the ruling, as well as the fact that neither party nor the appellate court cited directly controlling Iowa Supreme Court precedent, the highest Iowa court may well grant further review in the coming months.

For further information regarding collections proceedings or litigation relating to real estate, contact Mollie Pawlosky at mpawlosky@dickinsonlaw.com.

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