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Greenwood stands up for its streets and its citizens


It’s so easy to criticize city government for allowing the favored few to take advantage of public goods. And it’s difficult for a city to justify putting a damper on economic activity, even when the activity seems to consume public resources. But the City of Greenwood, Missouri, on the southeast side of Kansas City, did just that, with a jury of citizens deciding that a busy quarry’s truck traffic was a public nuisance.

In City of Greenwood v. Martin Marietta dated August 11, 2009, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri upheld a jury’s determinations (1) that heavy truck traffic from a quarry outside the city constituted a “public nuisance,” justifying the award to the city of damages, including punitive damages, and (2) that Martin Marietta Materials, Inc., and its partner were negligent in making street repairs. The Court of Appeals also approved the trial judge’s ruling on the legality of the city’s ordinance excluding commercial traffic.

From the map, the quarry is apparent on the southeast side of Greenwood, as is Greenwood’s Main Street, which is also State Highway 150. The Court of Appeals noted that the trucks hauling to and from the quarry preferred to travel north up Second Street, rather than to get to Highway 150 via State Highway 291; the alternate route would have been a little further and probably would have offended the citizens of Lake Winnebago, rather the citizens of Greenwood.

The facts of the case are uncomplicated: heavy truck traffic through narrow residential streets created noise and dust and interfered with the residential use of the streets. What is interesting is that the City of Greenwood asserted itself on behalf of its residents under the theory of public nuisance.

Jury finds public nuisance

Private nuisance, as discussed in other posts on this blog, has to do with damage to the enjoyment of private property caused by the use of nearby property. Public nuisance, according to precedents cited by the Court of Appeals, “may be found where the unreasonable use obstructs the rights or property of the whole community, or neighborhood, or of any considerable number of persons.” It was for the jury to determine whether the offending use was “so extensive and of such duration as to constitute a substantial interference” with residents and business owners who own property near the road.

Repairs were negligently made

On the claim that the defendants negligently repaired the road, the jury heard evidence from which it could conclude that the damages and repairs “substantially interfered with public safety.” Testimony that Martin Marietta made the repairs after complaints from the truck drivers about the condition of the street probably helped the City’s case.

The City’s power to restrict commercial traffic is nearly unlimited

The defendants also argued that the City did not have the power to adopt an ordinance restricting commercial traffic to “commercial use routes” ; because the City did not designate any streets as commercial use routes, the ordinance completely excluded heavy truck traffic from the City. The Court of Appeals ruled that the City did not deny quarry traffic access to the state highway system, but was using its statutory right to control traffic, under Missouri statute 304.120.(4), which allows cities to restrict certain routes to passenger vehicles only.

When are juries valuable?

The determinations of juries have been respected in the United States and England for centuries. Juries can establish community standards for obscenity, determine whether a criminal defendant is guilty, and sort out the credibility of witnesses, even witnesses whose testimony is incredibly technical.

Judges and courts of appeal rarely interfere with what a jury has determined because of this tradition of deference embodied in statutory and common law. But courts of appeals occasionally reduce or overturn a jury verdict.

Juries, like individuals, get carried away. We hope that individuals on juries moderate one another. We have faith that this happens, but we know that the wisdom of juries is sometimes lacking.

Would we want a single judge to determine whether the use of streets in Greenwood by quarry traffic was unreasonably detrimental to the citizens of Greenwood?

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

2 responses »

  1. On Friday, June 18, the new Board of Aldermen threw away the jury verdict in favor of Greenwood. Had they waited until Monday, they would have learned that the United States Supreme Court had refused to hear the state court appeals case filed by Martin Marietta Materials. The board gave the quarry use of 2nd. Avenue in exchange for 7 million dollars with 4 million going to the attorneys who represented the city in the legal battle with the quarry owners. The total award had grown to 14 million dollars when accumulated interest was added. The new BOA spit in the faces of the Missouri state jury that made their decision with a unanimous vote and gave up on the right of the city to control the use of its own street. This was a travesty of justice. The Supreme Court decision not to hear the MMM appeal would have meant that every small community in this country would have the right to control nuisances on their streets.

    Reply
    • Gene, thanks for the update. From what Greenwood mayor posted on the City of Greenwood’s website, the board of aldermen was afraid that the United States Supreme Court would set aside the jury verdict, so they accepted a settlement after meeting with property owners along alternate routes.

      As elected officials, the members of the board of aldermen have to make very tough choices, for which they get paid nothing. I don’t know enough about the facts of the case to speculate about whether the terms of the settlement were wise or unwise.

      .

      I don’t know enough

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