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Judge issues orders in “wedding house” lawsuit

Jan 10th, 2014 | 0

While the lawsuit will continue, a Walton County judge has issued several orders in a case involving a Seagrove Beach short-term rental home often used for large wedding-related gatherings.
The home is located in a Residential Preservation land use area. In June 2011, the owners of the home, Karen and Reppard Bennett, filed suit against Walton County. This was soon after the Walton County Code Enforcement Board (CEB) found the Bennetts in error for a repeat violation involving the alleged use of the home in a “non-residential manner.” Fines of $500 per day were imposed in connection with the alleged violation.
The Bennetts argued that those fines were illegal and in violation of their rights to due process and equal protection under the law. The couple also claimed a “taking” of their property due to alleged violation of their rights as property owners by the county.
In June 2013, the Bennetts filed a motion for partial summary judgment. A summary judgment is granted when a judge determines that there is no dispute with regard to material facts presented.
On Sept. 30, 2013, David W. Green, Walton County acting circuit judge, denied that motion, finding that “genuine issues of material fact remain in dispute” with regard to each count presented by the plaintiffs.
Also on Sept. 30, Green issued an order granting in part and denying in part an amended motion for summary judgment filed by Walton County. The amended motion had been filed in August 2013.
Included in Judge Green’s findings in that order was that both the Walton County Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code prohibit non-residential use of the property owned by the plaintiffs—and that both the plan and the code were enacted prior to the plaintiffs’ purchase of the property.
The order granted Walton County’s motion for summary judgment with regard to Count VI of the Bennetts’ complaint. This was one of seven counts or causes of action contained in the lawsuit. In Count VI, the Bennetts had sought relief based upon Chapter 2011-119 of the Laws of Florida, which took effect in June 2011.
This chapter prohibits any local law that would “restrict the use of vacation rentals, prohibit vacation rentals, or regulate vacation rentals based solely on their classification, use, or occupancy.”
“A review of the statute reveals that it does not apply to local ordinances adopted before 2011, which is the case with both the Walton County Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code,” Judge Green wrote.
The order denied Walton County’s motion for summary judgment with regard to all other counts of the Bennett’s complaint, leaving those arguments unaddressed for the time being.
Judge Green’s most recent order in the case was issued on Dec. 31.
Among the judge’s findings in that order were that arbitrary or capricious actions as alleged by the Bennetts to have been made in enforcement of a county ordinance “cannot support an action for violation of substantive due process rights.”
The Bennetts had complained that nothing in the Walton County Land Development Code addressed or provided a definition of the term “non-residential.”
However, in Judge Green’s Dec. 31 order he opined, “The term ‘non-residential’ conveys a sufficient definite warning as to the proscribed (forbidden as unlawful) conduct when measured by common understanding.”
Count 1 of the Bennetts’ complaint had alleged unconstitutionality with regard to the provision of the county land development code stating that non-residential uses are not allowed in Residential Preservation land use areas, unless part of a previously-approved plat or development order. The allegation had been that the provision was unconstitutional on its face and also as applied to them.
Walton County had countered, among other arguments, that the county land development code had been enacted in “pursuant to the requirements and authority” of Florida statutes.
In the Dec. 31 order, Judge Green granted Walton County’s motion for summary judgment with regard to this count of the lawsuit and denied the Bennetts’ motion as related to the count.
“The court reserves jurisdiction over the issues of attorney’s fees and court costs related to Count 1,” the judge also noted.

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