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When local officials see only money and shove the environment over the cliff, thank goodness we have some fair judges who will do the right thing.
Read the original article here at Florida Phoenix.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum
Appeals Court Vindicates Citizens’ Right to Challenge Land Developments
First DCA rules that groups can sue over a Walton County project
Plans for a Walton County land development project called Cypress Lake call for 141 residential units, including 85 single-family houses, 40 duplex units, and 16 condo units, plus 53,000 square feet of commercial space comprising four mixed-use buildings.
Walton County officials OK’d the project notwithstanding complaints that the development would be jammed in too close to surrounding neighborhoods, would feature twice their housing density, would be too close to Highway 30A, would add to traffic problems in the area, and could endanger the nearby State Topsail Hill Preserve Park.
There’s another problem: Walton County authorities may have ignored their own comprehensive development plan in approving Cypress Lake. That’s a master plan mandated by state law and intended to prevent the very problems that critics of the project fear.
Now, a state appeals court has reinstated a legal challenge to the development, potentially breathing new life into citizens’ right under the Community Planning Act to hold local governments to their promises to make sure new development doesn’t overwhelm existing communities and degrade the natural environment.
“The act in several places makes clear that it has a purpose to ensure that local development is in strict and complete compliance with a duly adopted comprehensive plan,” Judge A.S. Tanenbaum wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
Since 1985, state law has required local governments to write comprehensive growth plans governing a wide range of factors including the environment; water, sewer, and other utilities; land use; transport, school placement, and how local governments work together on planning, Tallahassee land-use attorney Terrell Arline said in a telephone interview.
The law empowers citizens to file lawsuits to enforce those plans, he said. “The state doesn’t enforce the comp plan; it’s up to the citizens, the neighbors, environmental groups,” said Arline, who represents environmentalist organizations South Walton Community Council and Beach to Bay Connection plus individuals in opposing the plans for Cypress Lake.
Some definitions are in order. The act says that developments must conform to the comprehensive plans regarding land use, density, or intensity — meaning, respectively, residential or commercial, the number of structures per acre, and the size of commercial structures, Arline said.
At the trial level in this case, Walton County Circuit Judge David Green had limited the permissible challenges to those three factors. He concluded he was bound by the most recent Florida precedent: Heine v. Lee County, a 2017 ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal — with jurisdiction encompassing the Tampa Bay region and Southwest Florida — which took a more crabbed view.
But the law specifically empowers citizens to challenge “other aspects” of a proposed development to make sure they “further the objectives, policies, land uses, and densities or intensities in the comprehensive plan and if it meets all other criteria enumerated by the local government,” Tanenbaum wrote.
“In other words, there is no limitation on the aspects of a development order that the trial court should consider before concluding that the order (or the action on the order) is consistent with the comprehensive plan,” he continued.
“Indeed, the act nowhere mentions a carve-out from what is to be considered in a consistency review. Any review of a development order for consistency must consider whether there is complete consistency.”
To summarize: “complete conformity” with a plan “is the floor, not the ceiling” in assessing a development, Tanenbaum wrote.
The First District also rejected the Second District’s language limiting citizens’ right to file suit.
“This line of argument misses the point of the statute,” Tanenbaum wrote.
“The particular breadth of standing authorized by the statute reflects its primary purpose — to remedy the governmental entity’s failure to comply with the established comprehensive plan, not to redress damage to particular plaintiffs….”