On January 12, 2016, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, issued an opinion ruling that the St. Charles County Circuit Court should not have dismissed Carl and Janice Duffner’s challenge to the validity of a municipal ordinance that requires homeowners to devote half of their property to growing plants designated by the city.
The City of St. Peters threatens homeowners with both extraordinary financial penalties and jail time unless they obey the City’s demand to grow “turf grass” on at least half of their property. The Duffners believe that grass yards are bad for the environment and Mrs. Duffner is allergic to grass, so years ago they converted their entire yard to a beautiful flower garden, complete with walkways and ponds. City officials acknowledged that the Duffners’ plants are “very attractive and well kept,”and that “there is a lot of ground cover which is low to the ground and… gives an appearance, height, and scale that is similar to grass,” but nevertheless in 2014 they ordered the Duffners to tear out part of their flower garden and replace it with grass, even though that plant makes Mrs. Duffner sick.
Assisted by the Freedom Center of Missouri, the Duffners challenged the Turf Grass Mandate in court, arguing that it violated their property rights under both the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions and that the ordinance also violated Missouri statutes. On April 22, 2015, the trial court dismissed the Duffners’ lawsuit based on the idea that the court had no authority to hear the claims the Duffners had presented. The Duffners filed their appeal the very next day.
After reviewing the case, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court got almost everything wrong. Specifically, the appellate court held that the trial court clearly did have the authority to address three of the four elements of the Duffners’ lawsuit, especially their charges that the Turf Grass Mandate was invalid under the state and federal constitutions and Missouri statutes. The appellate court ordered the case to be sent back to the trial court to resolve the issues raised under the Missouri Constitution and statutes.
But in an odd twist, the appellate court ruled that, although the trial court had the authority to rule on the Duffners’ claim based on the U.S. Constitution’s protections of property rights and although the Duffners had properly alleged that the Turf Grass Mandate was “unreasonable, arbitrary, and… not necessary for the advancement of any compelling or permissible state objective,” courts may only strike down laws that infringe on property rights if those laws are “truly irrational.” This conclusion is extremely disturbing, because although property rights are explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution and treated as fundamental rights, the Missouri Court of Appeals has refused to afford them even the most minimal degree of judicial protection. The Duffners are considering the best way to address this particular error.
Despite this failing, however, the Duffners are pleased that the Court of Appeals corrected the egregious errors made by the trial court and they look forward to winning this property rights battle on behalf of all Missourians.