In 2007, Martin County adopted a series of comprehensive plan amendments known as the “Valliere Amendment” that allowed for clustered development in almost 200,000 acres of agricultural and rural lands outside the urban services boundary (USB). A companion amendment allowed for the extension of central water and sewer service into the secondary. 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance (MCCA) have a history of strongly defending the USB, and saw these amendments as directly undermining it.
1000 Friends and MCCA challenged the Valliere Amendment in a Department of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) proceeding. The Department of Community Affairs (DCA) issued a final order upholding the amendment. This decision was appealed to the First District Court of Appeals, which determined that 1000 Friends and MCCA did not have standing to appeal the administrative decision (although there was no dispute that they had standing to pursue the challenge on the administrative level).
In dismissing the appeal (see First DCA opinion), the First District found that the appellees (Martin County, Department of Community Affairs and Martin Island Way, LLC and Island Way, LC) were entitled to recover their attorneys’ fees from the appellants (1000 Friends and MCCA) and the appellants’ attorneys (Richard Grosso and Everglades Law Center). 1000 Friends and MCCA subsequently filed an appeal with the Florida Supreme Court. After initially agreeing to hear the appeal, the Florida Supreme Court reversed itself and dismissed the case on May 9, 2013 (see Florida Supreme Court order). That means that the ruling by the First District Court of Appeals stands, and that because of the standing issue, it was determined that a “frivolous” appeal had been filed, subjecting the parties to an award of attorneys’ fees.
The lesson to be learned from this case is that the statute that provides access to the courts for citizens to challenge comprehensive plan amendments needs clarification (see the statement by 1000 Friends and MCCA). The First District’s decision essentially concludes that while 1000 Friends and MCCA had standing to pursue the administrative challenge, they could not appeal the unfavorable decision of the administrative law judge and administrative agency that issued the final order. In other words, the citizens groups were denied access to judicial review of their challenge.
The issue needs to be addressed by the Legislature to prevent what the First District’s dissenting opinion called “the chilling effect” of this ruling. The problem is that citizens groups may be correct on the merits of a case, but can’t get the case to a court for review because of the “lack of standing” as determined by the First District Court of Appeals. This means that a bad ruling on the administrative level may never be reviewed or reversed by a court unless the Legislature makes it clear that a citizen or an organization that has standing to challenge an amendment must also have standing to appeal to the courts if the administrative challenge is denied.
It is significant to point out that it is not possible to determine if a party has standing until they file an appeal and the appellate court makes a determination. Under the First District’s ruling in this case, if a party is determined not to have standing to file an appeal, the appeal is deemed “frivolous” and the party must pay the opposing party’s attorneys’ fees for the appeal. This is, unfortunately, one more cost of protecting and preserving Martin County’s unique development pattern and trying to save its USB.