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Judge promises ruling in “wedding house” lawsuit

May 10th, 2012 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

Attorneys for the owners of a large short-term rental home in Seagrove Beach have made the argument that Walton County has “no regulatory basis” to prohibit renters from holding weddings, receptions, and other events in the home.

Walton County has maintained that the occurrence of these events amounts to “nonresidential use” of the property, which is in a residential area, representing a code violation due to the frequency of the events.

Legal representatives for the property owners and the county made arguments in DeFuniak Springs on April 30 in the court of Walton County Circuit Judge David Green. Both parties had filed motions for summary judgment asserting that there were no material or factual issues to be decided in a trial. Approval of one of the motions for summary judgment would settle the matter in favor of one of the parties without a full-fledged trial.

In the interest of disclosure, Judge Green told the attorneys that his wife’s sister is married to Walton County Code Enforcement Officer Stosh Arnold. He did not think Arnold had been involved in the code enforcement case on the alleged violation. He was thanked for providing that information, and no objections were made to his presiding over the hearing.

The owners of the home, Karen and Reppard Bennett, sued the county in June 2011, soon after the Walton County Code Enforcement Board (CEB) found them in error for a repeat violation involving alleged use of the home in a nonresidential manner. Fines of $500 per day were imposed, which were to continue as long as the alleged violation was in existence.

The Bennetts argued that those fines were illegal and in violation of their rights to due process and equal protection under the law. They claimed a “taking” of their property due to the alleged violation of their rights by the county.

Representing the county, attorney Tim Warner argued that the Bennetts should have known when they purchased their property in 2002 that the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) did not allow this type of use in residential areas. They are not being deprived from renting out the home, he added.

Representing the Bennetts, Port St. Lucie attorney Stephen Gieseler maintained that the code does not give the county authority to regulate events at rental properties.

“This is a touchy political issue,” Gieseler commented. He noted that they county has not challenged property owners who hold events on their property or long-term renters who hold events. Only when short-term renters hold events is the county considering the events to be commercial in nature—”without any regulatory basis,” Gieseler argued.

The Bennetts have maintained that language in the code in connection with residential and nonresidential uses is vague and difficult to understand. Gieseler pointed out that the county had proposed ordinances to regulate events in residential areas.

The proposed ordinances had drawn much criticism from property owners and from others, including the weddling/events industry and Gieseler, and were not passed.

Gieseler asserted that if the code clearly prohibited short-term renters from holding events there would be no reason for such an ordinance. He suggested that an ordinance regulating events could specify the frequency that events could take place on a property and the number of persons who could attend. This would give the Bennetts guidance, he said, in telling renters they could not hold events, for example, if over a certain number of people woud be attending. It would be important for such an ordinance to “apply to everybody” Gieseler said, and put all property owners on an equal footing.

Judge Green asked Gieseler if the Bennetts would support an ordinance and if it would satisfy their concerns. Gieseler responded that the Bennetts had not opposed such an ordinance.

Warner responded by saying that the question at hand was not whether the county could have regulated nonresidential activity in residential areas in a more “artful” manner. “It’s whether what is in place meets Constitutional muster,” he asserted

Judge Green told the attorneys that he wanted to review their arguments. He indicated that he would provide his ruling in writing.

In February 2012, another case filed by the Bennetts in response to the code board’s finding of repeat violation was decided in favor of the county by Walton County Circuit Court Judge W. Howard LaPorte. LaPorte had found that, in its decision, the CEB did not depart from essential requirements of the law, that the board did not violate due process, and that its decision was supported by competent substantial evidence.

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