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Northcrest R. V. Park v. Lakeland Regional Sewer District

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 27, 2018

Northcrest R. V. Park, Barbee Landing Mobile Home Park, Kuhn Lakeside Resort, and Pine Bay Resort, Appellants-Complainants,
v.
Lakeland Regional Sewer District, Appellee-Respondent, and Indiana Regional Sewer District Association, Appellee-Intervenor.

          Appeal from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission The Honorable James F. Huston, Chairman The Honorable Sarah E. Freeman The Honorable David E. Ziegner The Honorable David Ober, Commissioners The Honorable Lora L. Manion, Administrative Law Judge IURC Cause No. 44973

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS - NORTHCREST R.V. PARK, BARBEE LANDING MOBILE HOME PARK, AND KUHN LAKE LAKESIDE RESORT Bette J. Dodd Joseph P. Rompala Tabitha L. Balzer Lewis & Kappes, P.C. Indianapolis, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT - PINE BAY RESORT Jeffery A. Earl Danville, Indiana Robert M. Glennon Danville, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Eric M. Blume Larry L. Barnard Andrew D. Boxberger Carson LLP Fort Wayne, Indiana

          ATTORNEY FOR INTERVENOR Donald J. Tribbett Tribbett Law Office Logansport, Indiana

          NAJAM, JUDGE.

         Statement of the Case

         [¶1] Northcrest R.V. Park, Barbee Landing Mobile Home Park, Kuhn Lakeside Resort, and Pine Bay Resort (collectively, "the Mobile Home Parks") appeal the decision of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission ("IURC") in favor of the Lakeland Regional Sewer District ("the Sewer District"). The Mobile Home Parks raise two issues for our review, but we find the following issue dispositive: whether the IURC lacked jurisdiction to determine whether the Sewer District had erred when the Sewer District classified the Mobile Home Parks as "mobile home courts" rather than as "campgrounds" in the course of the Sewer District's exercise of its ratemaking authority. We hold that the IURC lacked jurisdiction to review that issue, and, as such, the IURC properly entered summary judgment for the Sewer District and dismissed the Mobile Home Parks' complaints. Thus, we affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] The Sewer District is a regional sewer district in Kosciusko County, and the Mobile Home Parks are each located in the Sewer District's service area. In 2015, the Sewer District enacted Ordinance No. 2015-02 ("the ordinance"), [1]which provided in relevant part as follows:

Section 1. Unless the context specifically indicates otherwise, the meaning of the terms used in this ordinance shall be as follows:
b. "Campground" shall mean any real property that is set aside and offered by a Person for direct or indirect remuneration of the owner, lessor, or operator thereof for parking or accommodation of Recreational Vehicles, tents, camper trailers, camping trucks, motor homes, and/or similar shelters that are not designed for permanent or year-round occupancy.
m. "Mobile Home" shall mean a residential structure that is transportable in one or more sections, is thirty-five (35) feet or more in length with the hitch, is built on an integral chassis, is designed to be used as a place of human occupancy when connected to the required utilities, contains the plumbing, heating, air conditioning, and/or electrical systems in the structure, and is constructed so that it may be used with or without permanent foundation.
n. "Mobile Home Court" shall mean a parcel of land containing two or more spaces, with required improvements and utilities, used for the long-term placement of Mobile Homes.
t. "Recreational Vehicle" shall mean a travel trailer, park model, collapsible trailer, truck-mounted camper, or motor home. A "Recreational Vehicle" is not a "Mobile Home."

         Appellants' App. Vol. IV at 80-82. The Sewer District then implemented different rates based on, as relevant here, whether it had classified a property as a campground or as a mobile home court. See, e.g., Appellants' App. Vol. VIII at 61-62.

         [¶3] The Sewer District did a site inspection of each of the Mobile Home Parks. According to that site inspection, one property "had 45 mobile homes and one recreational vehicle"; another "had 28 mobile homes"; a third "had 12 mobile homes, two recreational vehicles[, ] and one empty lot"; and the fourth "had at least 22 mobile homes and at least three recreational vehicles." Appellants' App. Vol. II at 90. Based on that information, the Sewer District classified each of the Mobile Home Parks as mobile home courts. Some of the Mobile Home Parks asked the Sewer District to reconsider their classifications, which requests the Sewer District denied in August and September of 2015.

         [¶4] None of the Mobile Home Parks filed a petition for declaratory judgment asking a court to review the ordinance's definitions. Instead, in late 2015 and early 2016, several of the Mobile Home Parks filed complaints with the IURC, in IURC Cause Number 44798 ("the first IURC action"), asking the IURC to review their classifications under the ordinance. However, the IURC dismissed those complaints without prejudice on the ground that they were not yet ripe as the Sewer District had not yet billed any of the Mobile Home Parks. Appellants' Addend. at 8;[2] see also Ind. Code § 13-26-11-2.1 (2018).

         [¶5] Shortly thereafter, the Sewer District issued its first bills to the Mobile Home Parks at the rates established for mobile home courts, at which time the Mobile Home Parks filed their complaints against the Sewer District with the IURC in Cause Number 44973 ("the second IURC action"). In their complaints, the Mobile Home Parks again challenged their classifications under the ordinance as mobile home courts rather than as campgrounds.[3] Meanwhile, the Sewer District moved for declaratory judgment in the Kosciusko Superior Court on the ground that the ordinance definitions were a lawful exercise of the Sewer District's authority. The Kosciusko Superior Court stayed the declaratory judgment proceeding during the pendency of the second IURC action.

         [¶6] In November of 2017, the Mobile Home Parks and the Sewer District moved for summary judgment in the second IURC action. On May 16, 2018, the IURC entered summary judgment for the Sewer District. In its order, the IURC rejected the Sewer District's argument that the IURC lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review the Sewer District's classification of the Mobile Home Parks. Instead, the IURC concluded that, because Indiana Code Section 13-26-11-2.1 permits the IURC to review specific billing disputes between regional sewer districts and "campgrounds," the IURC had "implicit jurisdiction to adjudicate whether a regional sewer district has properly classified [an entity] as a campground . . . ." Appellants' App. Vol. II at 40-41 (capitalization removed).

         [¶7] Nonetheless, the IURC also concluded that Indiana law "does not authorize the [IURC] to approve or revise regional sewer district ordinances regarding customer rates and classifications" but that, instead, the IURC only "has authority to resolve billing disputes" under Indiana Code Section 13-26-11-2.1. Id. at 44. In light of that conclusion, the IURC decided that the Sewer District had "acted within its legal authority to adopt rates and to make classifications." Id. at 46-47. The IURC also concluded that the Mobile Home Parks "did not apply the requirements in [the Sewer District's] definition of Campground to their properties" in support of their motions for summary judgment; as such, the IURC found that, insofar as it had the authority to determine the question, the Mobile Home Parks had failed to support their classification disputes with ...


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