UPDATES & ANALYSIS

5.15

Iowa Supreme Court affirms Carroll Airport’s decision affecting a towering grain elevator in its flight path

by Rox Laird | May 15, 2019

The Carroll Airport Commission ordered a farmer to remove a 12-story grain elevator erected near its runway because it presents a flight hazard. The Federal Aviation Administration, however, issued a contrary opinion saying the elevator could remain.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a decision handed down May 10 (Carroll Airport Commission v. Danner), ruled that local authority prevails over federal, and the grain elevator will have to be removed or shortened.

Carroll County farmers Loren and Pan Danner erected a 127-foot-tall “grain leg” to lift and distribute grain to five storage bins. The elevator rises 60 feet higher than the airport’s protected airspace.

The Danners had argued that the airport commission’s restriction on structures lying in the runway flight path is preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration, which had issued a letter saying the grain elevator did not present a hazard provided it was painted and equipped with blinking red lights.

The Carroll County District Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals both disagreed, and the Iowa Supreme Court in a unanimous decision written by Justice Thomas Waterman, affirmed both lower courts. (Justice Christopher McDonald, who until his appointment to the Supreme Court in February had served on the Court of Appeals, did not participate in the case.)

At its heart, this case is about federal versus local power.

The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s says the law of the United States government is the “supreme Law of the Land,” meaning federal law ordinarily prevails over state and local law unless Congress permits local laws to supersede federal authority.

Courts apply a legal doctrine of “preemption” to determine when the Supremacy Clause is invoked by Congress.

State and local laws are preempted by federal laws under the Supremacy Clause when Congress expressly asserts exclusive authority over local laws, when there is a conflict between federal and state laws, or when Congress clearly intends to occupy the field on a particular issue (called “field preemption”).

None of those apply in the Carroll Airport case, the Court said, because state and local regulators can impose stricter safety restrictions than the FAA in regulating structures near local airports. Moreover, the Court pointed out that the FAA, in making its determination on the Carroll grain elevator, “expressly warned the Danners that they still must comply with state and local laws.”

The Court said the Carroll Airport Commission had valid reasons for requiring the Danners to modify or remove the grain elevator.

“The commission presented credible opinion testimony from experienced pilots familiar with the airport,” Waterman wrote. “The District Court credited their testimony that the grain leg poses a hazard to aviation there. So do we. . . . The structure is not easy to see in certain weather conditions. The higher approach requires a steeper descent poorly suited to some types of aircraft. A distracted pilot might fly into the twelve-story elevator, with fatal consequences.”

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