Court dismisses from federal court Seahighland beach ownership claim [PREMIUM]

PLAT OF the Seahighland subdivision. The subdivision is the subject of a federal lawsuit brought forward by owners of six Seahighland lots.

By DOTTY NIST

A beach ownership claim contained in a federal lawsuit filed against Walton County by owners of six lots in the Seahighland subdivision has been dismissed, with the possibility of it being heard in state court. However, a claim that Walton County’s permitting of vending on the beach at Seahighland violates the rights of the plaintiff lot owners will continue to be considered in federal court.

The Seahighland subdivision is located in the Seagrove area, consisting of 60 lots.

The lawsuit was filed in late January in U.S. District Court in Pensacola. The case was considered to be under federal court jurisdiction due to meeting the two requirements for federal subject matter jurisdiction under Title 28, Section 1332 of the United States Code. These are that the amount under jurisdiction exceeds $75,000 and that no plaintiff shares a state of citizenship with any defendant.

Walton County, defendant in the lawsuit, is considered a Florida legal entity/party, and all the plaintiffs are residents of states other than Florida.

The lawsuit

The lawsuit involves beach areas lying south of the lawsuit plaintiffs’ lots that are within an area designated on the subdivision plat (recorded in the late 1940s) as “Beach Reserved for Public,” later referred to in the lawsuit as “the Beach.”

The plaintiffs are property owners in Seahighland blocks J, K, and L, just north of the beach.

Referenced in the lawsuit were restrictions recorded prior to the Seahighland property being subdivided that, according to the lawsuit, “generally prohibit commercial activities and provided that all of the land shall be used only for residential purposes and that the open space between the south end of all lots and blocks J, K, and L to the water’s edge shall be kept open as a park and free of any type of structures so as not to obstruct the view, or bathing, or lounging facilities of other property owners.” A copy of the restrictions was included as an exhibit for the lawsuit.

With regard to the county allowing vending on the beach at Seahighland, the property owners contended that the “original subdividers did not intend that the Beach would be used as an area for commercial activity,” adding that such activity was detrimental to the property owners’ rights.

The plaintiffs also referenced dedication language contained in the subdivision plat stating that the original subdividers “hereby dedicate to the public all of the streets, roads and parks as designated herein.”

The property owners contended that this offer of dedication “was never accepted by Walton County.”

Included with the lawsuit as an exhibit was a document on behalf of the property owners, dated July 3, 2019, revoking “the purported offer of dedication.”

The property owners asserted that Walton County therefore “has no right to control over the Beach to the extent that Walton County claims the right to control the Beach by virtue of the dedication.”

It was noted that the revocation of the dedication offer did not affect private rights of people who have purchased/acquired deeds to lots in the subdivision.

 Requested of the court in the lawsuit was a declaration of the plaintiffs’ ownership of the portions of the beach south of their lots, a declaration that Walton County lacks the right to designate beach vendor zones on the beach parcel, a declaration that the plaintiffs’ “substantial rights” were violated by the county permitting “commercial businesses” (the vendors) to operate on the beach in question, and that the court bar Walton County from issuing permits for vendors to operate on the subject beach area.

Walton County’s motion to dismiss

Walton County responded on March 2 with a motion to dismiss. The county contended that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs failed to join the owners of the other 54 lots in the subdivision in the lawsuit. The county argued that these lot owners were “indispensable parties” who would be affected by the outcome of the case.

Among other arguments, Walton County pointed out in the motion that joining the owners of the 54 other lots in the lawsuit (some of whom are Florida residents) would negate the diversity requirement, thus removing the matter from federal court jurisdiction.

Regarding the July 3, 2019 document represented as a revocation of what the plaintiffs described as a “purported order of dedication” of the streets, roads and parks displayed on the subdivision plat, Walton County maintained that, “Even assuming…that the public dedication was properly revoked by the named Plaintiffs, that revocation had no effect on the rights of other property owners within the Seahighland subdivision.” The county further stated that the plaintiffs had failed to allege that any of the owners of the 54 other lots had revoked the dedication.

“The burden of proof is on the Plaintiff to prove a proper revocation of the dedication,” Walton County contended.

Citing case law, the county also maintained that the streets, parks and lots displayed on the subdivision plat had in fact been dedicated to public use, stating that in instances in which the owner of a tract plats it with streets, roads, and parks displayed and conveys lots with reference to the streets, roads and parks, that the streets are dedicated to public use by that action.

Property owners’ response

In a response to the county motion, the property owners disputed that the owners of the 54 other lots were indispensable parties in the lawsuit.

They stated that their allegations in the complaint had distinguished between the other lot owners’ “private right to use the Seahighland Beach and the public’s purported rights, if any.”

“Furthermore,” the property owners’ response continued, “the Complaint expressly acknowledges that Plaintiffs’ rights are subject to the other owners’ private right to use the Seahighland Beach.”

The property owners explained that the rights of the owners of the other lots to use the beach were not part of the litigation, nor would those rights, they argued, be affected by the court granting all the relief (both claims) requested in the lawsuit.

They maintained that, because of this, the other lot owners did not need to join in the revocation, nor were they indispensable parties in the lawsuit.

The property owners also argued that the court could grant them relief in connection with vending on the beach without finding that the plaintiffs were owners of the portions of beach directly south of their lots.

Judge’s order

Judge T. Kent Wetherell, United States District judge, presiding judge in the case, issued an April 6 order. The order granted Walton County’s motion to dismiss in part and denied the motion in part.

Judge Wetherell made the finding that the beach ownership question contained in the complaint “must be dismissed.”

He reasoned that a determination that the offer of dedication of the beach had not been accepted by the county would likely mean that ownership of all the beach south of the subdivision, not just the portions south of the plaintiff’s lots, would revert to all of the lot owners in the subdivision. This, he stated, would shift responsibilities for the beach from the county to all of those owners, some or all of whom might not desire to take on those responsibilities.

Judge Wetherell determined for this and other reasons that the owners of the remaining lots “should be joined as parties”—but that they could not be joined in the case because this would “divest the court of jurisdiction.” He reasoned that, with dismissal of the beach ownership claim, the plaintiffs would “have an adequate remedy” in state court for this claim.

“Indeed, state court may be a superior forum for the beach ownership claim because it involves an issue of state property law,” he wrote.

However, Judge Wetherell found that the “use restriction claim” regarding the commercial/vending activity in the case would be able to proceed in federal court, “because the county would be bound by a judgment on that claim even without the other lot owners’ involvement.”

“Plaintiffs are, of course, free to voluntarily dismiss this case and litigate both the beach ownership claim and the use restriction claim in state court,” he wrote.

The property owners are required to answer the complaint within 14 days of the date of the order (by April 20).