By DOTTY NIST
A lawsuit filed by Seaside Town Council against Seaside Community Development Corporation, Seaside Institute and Walton County has been dismissed with the finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to rule on the complaint.
On Jan. 16, Judge David W. Green ordered dismissal of the case, which had been filed in Walton County Circuit Court in September 2011.
Seaside Town Council (STC) is an association of owners of residential property at Seaside. Along with Walton County, the defendants in the lawsuit were Seaside Community Development Corporation (SCDC), the developer of Seaside, and Seaside Institute, an educational nonprofit organization established by Seaside founder Robert Davis.
Central to STC’s complaint is the Town of Seaside’s status as a development of regional impact (DRI). DRIs are Florida developments deemed to have a substantial effect on people residing in more than one county, either due to the character, size or location of the development. DRIs are subject to regional and state review for approval, along with special review on a regional and state level of their development plans.
In their complaint, STC maintained that SCDC “did not obtain the requisite approval of property owners at Seaside for modifications to the Master Plan and Urban Code” incorporated in the DRI to regulate development at Seaside.
“Consistency with the Seaside DRI is essential for Seaside’s recognition as a new urban community and for preservation of property values within Seaside,” STC’s complaint read.
“The County is responsible for implementing and enforcing land development regulations to ensure that development within Seaside complies with the Seaside DRI,” the complaint continued.
Among STC’s allegations were that the development corporation had represented that it had the authority to “make unilateral changes” to the DRI, master plan and urban code—and that it had modified the plan and code with changes to building, setbacks, common areas, recreational areas, preservation areas, parcel use restrictions, and public buildings and spaces. Further alleged was that SCDC violated the Seaside DRI by “impermissibly” expanding various types of development within the DRI, while decreasing open space, number of parking spaces, and preservation area.
In addition, STC charged the development company with using buildings and spaces not designated as private land in the master plan for private purposes, and conveying such buildings and spaces to private owners.
“Due to substantial deviations, SCDC lost any vested rights it had for development under the Seaside DRI,” STC asserted.
The lawsuit referenced a development by Seaside Institute in an area owned by SCDC that STC maintains to be a public space.
Among STC’s requests to the court were that the county be ordered to “apply the Seaside DRI (including the Master Plan and Urban Code) to all development at Seaside.” Also requested as part of the order was that all development at Seaside “must be approved by SARC” (Seaside Architectural Review Committee), which, STC maintained, “should be controlled by the Seaside property owners or their representatives” rather than the developer. In addition, STC called for buildings and spaces they deemed to be public to be deeded or dedicated as common elements.
The complaint concluded with requests by STC for injunctions on development at Seaside until SCDC “provides sufficient parking to comply with the DRI,” and “until the Court determines the regulations that apply to development at Seaside.”
In October 2011, Walton County filed a motion for dismissal of STC’s complaint on the grounds that STC had “failed to state a cause of action against the county,” had not alleged that the county had failed to apply the Seaside DRI to all development at Seaside, and had not identified what specific development would be the “target of the proposed injunction.”
In a December 2013 filing, defendants SCDC and Seaside Institute argued that it was not necessary to consider the merits of the case, evidence or the “theories” put forth by STC—but only whether the court had jurisdiction to make a determination on the existence of a DRI violation or on whether a modification to the DRI was improperly approved.
They further stated that the only parties authorized by Florida Statutes to challenge a DRI development order were “the owner, the developer, or the state planning agency.” The owner, the defendants maintained, was “narrowly defined as an owner of property within the bounds of the DRI as part of the proposed development.”
The defendants also argued that since the approval of the Seaside DRI in the 1980s, Seaside had been developed in conformity with the DRI. They maintained that STC could not “in good faith allege” that SCDC had ever been found in violation of the Seaside DRI. “Instead, what this case focuses on is STC’s subjective belief that a violation of the Seaside DRI has occurred or is presently occurring,” they asserted.
No court, the SCDC and Seaside Institute maintained, has jurisdiction to hear STC’s challenge involving alleged violation of Chapter 380 of Florida Statutes. This is the chapter setting forth requirements for DRIs. They argued that, by statute, “exclusive jurisdiction” on alleged violations of this chapter rests with Florida Land & Water Adjudicatory Commission (FLAWAC).
In addition, the defendants asserted that, as approved by Walton County and the state, the land use decisions implemented in Seaside were final and “not subject to challenge” by the plaintiffs.
“Every single decision implemented in Seaside was approved by Walton County and/or the appropriate Florida agency/department…,” they wrote, adding, “The Florida Supreme Court has instructed that decisions by county commissioners while acting in good faith” are provided with broad administrative discretion that is not controlled the courts in the absence of illegality or abuse.
The defendants concluded by asking for dismissal of the complaint “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”
On Jan. 16, Judge Green rendered his ruling on the case.
“Whatever the facts underlying the complaint may be,” Green wrote, “a review of the various counts makes clear that the plaintiff, in each instance, seeks to either challenge a DRI development order or to enforce the terms and requirements of such an order.”
He observed that laws applying to DRIs limit “the manner in which development orders related to a DRI” can be challenged and what parties are authorized to challenge or enforce those development orders.
With one exception, Green noted, the legislature has provided only one method for challenges to the issuance of development orders in connection with DRIs—appeals to the FLAWAC, filed within 45 days of the date the development order is rendered. Only the state land planning agency, a state attorney, a county, or a municipality are authorized to pursue enforcement to remedy violations of development orders related to DRIs, he continued, either through the FLAWAC or in the courts.
The only exception affording the use of the courts to challenge development order issuance related to DRIs, Green wrote, is a section of Florida Statutes that allows “Any person substantially affected” to file in court. However, the scope of court review in such instances is “confined solely to determining whether final agency action is an unreasonable exercise of the state’s police power constituting a taking without just compensation,” Green explained. No such claim was part of the lawsuit, he noted.
“Exclusive jurisdiction for these proceedings being vested in the Florida Land and Water Adjudicatory Commission,” Green concluded, “this court is without jurisdiction to consider the complaint filed by the plaintiff.”
He ordered the case dismissed “with prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”
By DOTTY NIST