By DOTTY NIST
A legal complaint recently filed against Walton County by Greater Estates homeowners has been denied in Walton County Circuit Court following only about 30 minutes of remarks by attorneys representing the two parties.
The decision by Walton County Circuit Judge Kelvin C. Wells took place at the Walton County Courthouse on May 21.
This was the first and only hearing on the lawsuit, which had been filed in February. In their complaint, the homeowners had requested that the court issue a writ of quo warranto directing the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to demonstrate their authority for issuing building permits for construction within the Sandestin Development of Regional Impact (DRI).
Most of the Driftwood property, an arrowhead-shaped bayfront peninsula located adjacent to Sandestin Resort, was included in the Sandestin DRI master plan, which the county approved in 1976. While under separate ownership and with its roadway connection to Sandestin walled off, Driftwood remains officially part of the Sandestin DRI.
The residences of Greater Driftwood Estates homeowners are around the perimeter of the Driftwood “arrowhead.” For approximately five years, these homeowners have complained of flooding around their homes, which they have credited to the development of new residential lots in the interior of the subdivision. That interior area has been approved for the development of 463 home sites.
In their lawsuit, the homeowners claimed the existence of noncompliance with the DRI, the associated development order, and county ordinances. Among alleged noncompliance issues was the homeowners’ contention that the interior area approved for development remains designated as open space in the DRI documents.
Their complaint cited Florida Statutes 380.06(17), which states, “Local governments shall not issue any permits or approvals or provide any extension of services if the developer fails to act in substantial compliance with the development order.”
Judge Wells asked Shawn Heath, attorney for the Greater Driftwood Estates homeowners, if Walton County’s authority to issue permits in DRIs was being challenged.
Heath responded that the complaint did not refer to the county’s general authority to issue building permits—but to whether the county has authority to issue permits under the circumstance “that this DRI is not in substantial compliance.”
“This is not a proper remedy,” Walton County Attorney Toni Craig said of the homeowners’ complaint. The county, she asserted, has sovereign authority to issue building permits.
“What would the remedy at law be?” Health asked. “What can compel a county government to exercise its authority not to issue permits if the developer fails to act in substantial compliance?” he questioned.
Wells asked Heath if any court had ever prohibited a county from issuing permits under the statute quoted. “Has this ever been done before?” he asked.
Heath responded that, according to his research, there had been no such case in Florida. “This is an unusual writ,” he admitted.
Heath said, however, that precedents do exist in which courts have compelled government agencies “to act or not act.”
For the statute to have meaning, Heath continued, there must be a means for it to be enforced, even though case law is “incredibly sparse on this issue.”
Who could force the statute to be enforced, he asked, if not people directly affected by it….
Read the full story in the 5/24/12 edition of the Herald Breeze.