Minnesota Supreme Court Confirms that Municipalities Cannot Impose Obligations that Conflict with the State Building Code
By: JOSEPH G. SPRINGER & BRIAN D. CLARK, SUMMER ASSOCIATE
In a May 15, 2008 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court confirmed that municipal ordinances different from the State Building Code are invalid. Although the decision involved a rental licensing ordinance, its impact extends beyond rental housing to every subject matter covered by the State Building Code.
The City of Morris v. Sax Investments, Inc. case involved a residential property in Morris, Minnesota. In January 2005, the owner registered the property as a residential rental property, which prompted a City of Morris enforcement officer to inspect it. The inspector found eight violations of the City’s Rental Licensing Ordinance. The owner corrected only four of the violations before a reinspection two months later. These violations remained:
- No ground fault interrupters on outlets within six feet of water sources in the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry rooms.
- Lack of a window or ventilation fan in a bathroom.
- Missing window covers on basement egress windows.
- A missing smoke detector in a basement bedroom.
The owner refused to correct the remaining violations, which prompted the City’s lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the owner from leasing the property until the violations were corrected.
Both the trial court and the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the City. The Supreme Court reversed both lower courts and held that three of Morris’ four rental housing requirements were prohibited by the State Building Code. The requirement of smoke detectors in sleeping rooms was found allowable, but only if the rental property was a single-family home.
The Supreme Court based its decision on Minnesota Statute § 16B.62, subd. 1:
The State Building Code applies statewide and supersedes the building code of any municipality. A municipality must not by ordinance or through development agreement require building code provisions regulating components or systems of any residential structure that are different from any provision of the State Building Code.
Based upon this statute, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that State Building Code prohibits municipal ordinances that meet these three conditions:
- The subject matter of the ordinance is covered by the State Building Code, including post-construction improvements.
- The ordinance governs a “component or system” of the home.
- The ordinance is different from the State Building Code.
Although City of Morris v. Sax only addressed rental property ordinances, the reasoning of the case applies far more broadly. It creates a prohibition on any provisions in municipal ordinances or development agreements that meet the three conditions described above.
Municipal ordinances will face new legal challenges. Cities have already announced that the decision will require them to reevaluate municipal ordinances governing rental housing.