THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, November 4, 2011 -
Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
In a case watched by developers, environmentalists and government agencies, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday sided with the St. Johns River Water Management District in a long-running dispute about the "taking" of property.
The dispute stemmed from a district decision in 1994 to deny a permit to Orange County landowner Coy Koontz for a development project.
District officials indicated they would grant the permit if Koontz agreed to conditions that included doing an environmental mitigation project several miles away from his land. Koontz refused and filed a lawsuit.
Lower courts sided with Koontz's arguments that the mitigation condition was unreasonable and that the denial of the permit amounted to a "taking" or improper "exaction" of his property. In 2006, a judge ordered the district to pay $376,000 to the estate of Koontz, who died during the case.
But the Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal. Justices said such cases should only occur in narrow circumstances, such as when conditions are placed on a landowner's property in exchange for a permit --- as opposed to conditions such as off-site mitigation.
While all seven justices agreed with overturning the ruling, four signed onto an opinion that raised the specter of landowners filing such lawsuits any time negotiations with government agencies are unsuccessful and permits are denied.
"Governmental entities must have the authority and flexibility to independently evaluate permit applications and negotiate a permit award that will benefit a landowner without causing undue harm to the community or the environment,'' Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote in the opinion, which was joined by Justices Barbara Pariente, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry.
Justice Peggy Quince did not explain her reasoning, while Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston offered a procedural opinion that the case should have first gone through a state administrative proceeding, instead of a circuit-court lawsuit.
Chris Carlyle, an appellate attorney for Koontz, said he was disappointed in the ruling. He said he would discuss with his clients whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which he said has not made a definitive ruling on such issues.
But Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties, which filed a brief on behalf of the water management district, called the ruling a "big victory.''
The case, which had been pending in the state Supreme Court since 2009, drew widespread interest. Along with the Florida Association of Counties, other groups that filed briefs included the Florida League of Cities, Audubon of Florida, the Association of Florida Community Developers and the Florida Home Builders Association.
The dispute started because Koontz sought to develop 3.7 acres of a 14.9-acre parcel that he had owned since the early 1970s near State Road 50 and the East-West Expressway in Orange County.
Koontz needed a permit from the water management district because 3.4 acres of the targeted development property was wetlands and 0.3 acres were "protected uplands,'' according to court documents.
The landowner was willing to put the rest of the 14.9 acres in a conservation program but he refused to do mitigation elsewhere that involved improvements to ditches and culverts.
The case bounced between circuit courts and the 5th District Court of Appeal for years. Ultimately, the water management district decided to issue a permit for the site but continued the case after a judge in 2006 ordered it to pay $376,000 in damages for the "temporary taking" of the property during more than 11 years of legal wrangling.