Town loses Key Club battle
Editor & Publisher
The $400 million redevelopment plan for Islandside at the Longboat Key Club and Resort is officially dead.
The Second District Court of Appeal and its panel of judges unanimously and decisively upheld a lower court’s ruling which quashed the development last December.
In short, the lower court ruled, and the appeal court upheld this week, that the Longboat Key Town Commission in approving the Key Club’s development order at Islandside violated its own zoning laws.
For Islandside Property Owners Coalition President Bob White, IPOC prevailing over the Town of Longboat Key in court is a vindication of what he and his group has fought for over the past three years and it underscores his dislike of the Town Commission’s actions.
“I think one outcome of this is several commissioners should lose their job,” said White. “They did not do their homework. The Commission bulled its way forward without giving much consideration to the legal ramifications or rights of property owners or residents. I certainly think a change in the makeup of the Town Commission needs to occur — certainly of those who were sitting and approved this illegal development. Citizens should vote accordingly at the next election.”
White received word of the ruling from Icard Merrill Attorney Robert Lincoln while on vacation in Maine. After a day digesting its significance, White said he takes great issue with the actions of the Town Commission.
“The commissioners who voted for this failed to do adequate due diligence as to the legality of what they were approving. They failed to get adequate legal advice and they did not get good legal advice.
They were so intent on approving this plan that they failed to consider the implications of what they were doing relative to town code and the rights of residents of this Key and as a result they have really damaged the governance of Longboat Key,” said White.
History of the challenge
The Islandside Property Owner’s Coalition along with the Sanctuary and L’Ambiance condominium associations petitioned the circuit court after the development order was initially approved, citing seven conflicts with the town code.
The circuit court agreed with IPOC and granted the Writ of Certiorari, which made the development approval invalid last Dec. 30.
The Town and Key Club collectively appealed that decision, saying the circuit court departed from the essential requirements of law in two respects: The town claimed the court exceeded its jurisdiction in re-weighing the evidence and not deferring to an interpretation of code that should have been controlled by a previous case, Rinker Materials Corp. v. City of Miami.
Anatomy of the decision
In the Appellate court’s written decision, the court went into great detail reaching its conclusion and wrote strenuously against the Town’s interpretations and arguments.
The appeals court wrote that the Town was incorrect, and “re-weighing of the evidence is simply not apparent. …To the contrary, we can see the circuit assiduously applied the appropriate factors in its first tier certiorari review.”
The court went on to say, “The town’s argument reaches too far and would encourage a judge to omit any meaningful background information in an order lest he or she be accused of impropriety. This hardly promotes judicial transparency, sound explanation and rational analysis. Our careful review of the record uncovers nothing suggesting that the circuit court relied on Ms. Simpson’s testimony to reach its decision.”
In its appeal, the town argued that the circuit court departed from the essential requirements of the law by not applying the controlling principals of Florida law from the Rinker Materials court case.
According to the town, the circuit court should have applied the town’s interpretation of the code because zoning regulations should both be consistently applied and construed to favor property owners.
Ironically, the appeals court said the Rinker Materials Corp. case actually bolstered the circuit court’s decision. The appeals court wrote, “The Circuit Court limited its analysis to the wording of the code; its eschewed extraneous evidence of intent. When a term in the code lacked definition, the circuit court utilized the proper rules of statutory construction, turning to the dictionary meaning to find the plain and ordinary meaning of undefined terms.”
That means that the appeals court supported the circuit court’s using plain and ordinary language to discern the meaning of the code. It then strongly wrote in its opinion, “no rule required adherence to the town’s self-serving interpretation.”
Then the town argued to the appeals court that its own code was ambiguous, thus requiring the court to defer to the town’s interpretation. Then the town cited a long-standing tradition of using that methodology.
The appeals court countered by writing that “tradition cannot displace the plain meaning of a local code.” And the court went on to further write, “while great weight must be given to the administrative construction of a statute, a court cannot afford such deference when the interpretation is unreasonable or erroneous.”
Further on the topic of interpreting land use laws, the court wrote in its opinion that the town’s longstanding interpretation of its own code cannot “tie the circuit court’s hands.”
The appeals court said that such a shifting sands approach to code construction would deny any meaningful review of local decisions. The court said that the town’s approach and what it was asking for does not promote consistency in the application of law. The court then wrote, “As the wording of its laws binds a legislature, the town is bound by the wording of its code. This mounts a bulwark against the town’s unfettered exercise of power.”
The court then cited Florida case law that determined that courts cannot amend ordinances, “as the town would have liked it to read, by ignoring the language of the code in favor of after the fact expert testimony as to legislative intent to fill the cracks. Because property owners and residents have every right to depend on the wording of the code.”
In a final conclusion, the appeals court wrote, “The trial court did not depart from the essential requirements of the law in quashing the development order. There’s no indication that the circuit court re-weighed the evidence, and the circuit court properly construed the code in accordance with Rinker Materials Corp. therefore, we deny the petition.”
White objects to the fact that the town’s entire court battle in this challenge against IPOC was paid for by the Longboat Key Club, thereby insulating the Commission from public criticism and cost. He called it an “unholy alliance” between the town and developer against a property owners group.
For Key Club attorney John Patterson, the decision leaves the Club with the option of appealing yet again, or reapplying the development order under newly amended codes. Patterson does not recommend another appeal, which brings an even higher legal threshold.
As for submitting a reapplication, it could prove easier for the Club, but still has risks.
Many town codes were changed after the development order was approved to specifically address what the lower courts took issue with. Those amendments are being challenged by IPOC as well.
If the Club reapplies, White says the Commission needs to look at the original town code and require the developer more closely comply with the Town code as it existed prior to the original approval.
“We have to stop this outrageous procedure of continuing to modify the code to meet the Key Club’s desire. They need to look toward the true public interests and the right of property owners of the expectation that the commission would enforce the rules of the town,” said White.
But for the Commission and Patterson, the changes to the code are the very changes they say the community wants and the community needs to allow the resort to go forward without legal ambiguity.