This content conveys general information. Do not use it as a substitute for legal advice. Any attorney general opinions cited are available from the League’s Research staff.
Use of findings of fact
Working with municipal land use regulations can be difficult for both city officials and residents. Sometimes cities need to make controversial decisions, and no matter what the result, someone will be unhappy.
An important part of the process is developing and adopting written “findings of fact” that explain the decision. Carefully and thoughtfully developing written findings can help solve a contentious problem because it forces officials to focus their inquiry on the relevant considerations. It also produces a record that makes it easier for a court to uphold the decision if challenged.
What are findings?
“Findings of fact” is a common term used to refer to a city’s written explanation of a land use decision. The term originates from the courts, where judges often explain their determinations by issuing documents entitled “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.” They recite the relevant facts and then make conclusions by applying those facts to relevant legal criteria.
Like courts, cities sometimes need to apply facts to law to make a decision. In administering land use ordinances, the city must often determine the facts associated with a particular request and then apply those facts to the legal standards.
This process is called “quasi-judicial,” and city authority is limited to applying the rules in place to the facts presented. If the facts indicate an applicant meets the relevant legal standards, then they may be entitled to the approval.
Typical land use approvals for which a city may need to find facts include requests for:
- Conditional or interim use permits
- Zoning variances
- A subdivision or plat approval.
If a city is sued over a land use decision, courts will review the record for a sufficient statement of the reasons given by the city for granting or denying the request. If the city denies an application relating to zoning, Minnesota’s 60-day rule requires the reasons for a denial be put in writing (Minn. Stat. § 15.99). Even when an application is approved, written findings explaining the decision are advisable. Findings should provide a court with everything needed to uphold the decision.
How to make findings
Creating findings of fact can be relatively straightforward if a city uses the following basic guidelines.
Apply facts to law
Findings of fact should explain to the reader how and why the city reached its decision. The document should:
- Identify the relevant legal criteria, such as statutory standards or code provisions.
- Explain the relevant facts relating to the particular application.
- Apply those facts to the legal criteria.
Look up the law
Before setting out to find facts, a little investigation is needed. A crucial early step is to identify the relevant legal standards.
For example, applications for conditional use permits are subject to standards that should be spelled out in city ordinance. Determine exactly what ordinance standards apply. Reference and quote the relevant standards in your findings.
Provide relevant facts
Findings of fact should state all the relevant facts the city considered in making its decision. A fact is relevant if it proves or disproves that the application meets the legal standards.
For instance, if an applicant is seeking a conditional use permit where the effect of traffic on adjacent properties is an ordinance standard, then the city should look for facts related to traffic impacts. It is important to address each and every relevant legal standard by describing relevant facts.
Show your work
Like a math exam in school, it is important to be complete and to “show your work.” Showing your work can be more important than reaching a particular result. Explaining the method of reasoning the city followed in judging an application helps ensure the city is on the right track. If a reader can tell how you reached your result, without having to guess, you showed your work. But if the reader is left guessing, then the city may be on shaky ground.
A simple technique to ensure findings sufficiently connect the decision to legal standards is to use the word “because.” Read each statement carefully before completing the finding. What you write after the word “because” in each finding must support the statement that introduces the finding. A similar approach is to phrase the standard as question, and then provide a detailed answer.
Don’t assume the reader knows about your city or has any background about the decisions. Present a complete picture, by telling the whole story. Written findings should be clear to someone unfamiliar with the matter. A person who knows nothing about your city or subject property should be able to read the findings and know what decision the city made and why.
Stay on track
Sometimes issues arise that don’t relate to the legal standards. If city officials start to discuss and debate the facts of the application without limiting themselves to the relevant legal standards, they can waste a lot of time and energy on issues that don’t lead to a solution. Arguments about irrelevant facts will lead the city astray. Don’t include irrelevant facts in your findings.
Neighborhood opposition is a challenging issue when considering the merits of a particular land use request. Case law holds that the opinions of neighbors should not be the sole basis for a particular city action. While residents can bring to light helpful information that relates to the legal standards, opposition alone is never a legally relevant finding. (Minnetonka Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Inc. v. Svee, 226 N.W.2d 306 (Minn. 1975)).
Findings must adequately describe the reasoning for a decision. Ambiguous, conclusory, or boiler plate language does not usually provide a sufficient explanation of the decision’s rationale. Merely restating or “parroting” the legal standard is not enough. It is important to state the legal criteria. But the city must do more and explain why the standard is or is not met.
Presentation can be important if you want to be taken seriously. So, check your spelling, use correct grammar, avoid pronouns, and don’t try to be funny. If you take the care to present well, it reinforces the idea that the city knows what it is doing and acted for sound reasons.
Sometimes a city might find itself in over its head, and it can be important to seek guidance. Be sure you understand the statements in your findings. For example, if you do not know what the comprehensive plan provides, do not try to complete a finding regarding the comprehensive plan until you learn what it states. Consult a planner or the city attorney or contact the League.
Written findings should identify the relevant legal criteria (such as statutory standards or code provisions), explain the relevant facts about the particular application, and then apply those facts to the legal criteria to reach a conclusion.
Sometimes more than one conclusion is possible. If the city takes care to develop thoughtful findings of fact that relate to the relevant legal standards, there should be no mystery as to why the city reached the decision it did.