Court ruling upholds Walton County approval of bed and breakfast [PREMIUM]

By DOTTY NIST A Walton County Circuit Court judge has found that Walton County acted properly in considering the Summer House Bed and Breakfast proposal in October 2017---and that the Walton County Board of County Commissioners’ (BCC) approval of the project was “supported by competent and substantial evidence.” Walton County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey E. Lewis provided his findings in a July 22 court order. The three-story, 13,130-square-foot, 25-guest room development had been approved for a 0.65-acre site on the north side of U.S. 98 in Inlet Beach, across the highway from Walton Rose Lane. The project remains unconstructed. In November 2017, the Historic Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association (HIBNA) had challenged the county approval in circuit court, naming both Walton County and project applicant Rita Bottems as defendants. In the filing, a Petition for Writ of Certiorari, the association had maintained that the BCC had not followed essential requirements of law and had denied members of the association due process. According to a history of the matter contained in the July 22 order, Bottems had submitted her application to develop the bed and breakfast in spring 2016. On June 21, 2016, the proposal first went before the BCC, resulting in a tie vote of the four commissioners present for the hearing on the project on a motion to deny. Based on that vote, and the BCC policy to consider a tie vote as a failure of a proposal, whether the motion is to approve or deny, the county did not grant the applicant a development order. Bottems had challenged the county action in an earlier circuit court case, resulting in a June 2017 court ruling that the tie vote had represented a failure to deny the application rather than a failure of the application and remanding the matter to the BCC. This resulted in a second hearing on the application on Oct. 5, 2017 at a BCC special meeting. The outcome of the Oct. 5, 2017, rehearing had been approval of the project with a 3-2 vote on a motion to approve. No new evidence had been taken at the Oct. 5, 2017 rehearing, and, by direction of Walton County Attorney Sidney Noyes, there was no sworn testimony. Public comment was taken and limited to three minutes per person. In their challenge of the BCC decision from the rehearing, the association argued, in part, that the county had failed to conduct a quasi-judicial hearing at the Oct. 5, 2017, special meeting, and that the association and other participants had not been provided with the opportunity to present evidence, resulting in, it was alleged, a departure from essential requirements of law. They asked the court to quash as invalid the final order of approval resulting from the hearing. In his July 22, 2019, order, Judge Lewis noted that no objection had been raised to the “format of the proceedings” at the Oct. 5 rehearing. “Generally, the failure to object waives an issue for appeal since the lower tribunal (BCC in this instance) is deprived of the opportunity to address, and correct if necessary, any defect in the proceedings,” he wrote. However Judge Lewis also noted that he did not rely on waiver as a basis for his decision. In connection to the issue of witness testimony not being sworn at the Oct. 5 rehearing, he observed that the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) “provides that strict adherence to the Rules of Evidence is not required in quasi-judicial proceedings.” “Further,” Judge Lewis wrote, “the Code provides for only the Applicant and the County Attorney to offer evidence and testimony,” citing county code provisions for quasi-judicial hearings. It was also his opinion that, in light of the BCC decision in the first (June 2016) hearing on the proposal (the tie vote), “the case was remanded to the BCC with the Summerhouse Bed and Breakfast application still pending before the BCC” at the time of the Oct. 5 special meeting. “In this case,” Judge Lewis wrote, “it is clear that the BCC sitting in its quasi-judicial role on June 21, 2016, and October 5, 2017, afforded both notice and opportunity to be heard.” He also noted that there had been questions asked of staff and discussion by the BCC in response to comments by the public, including the petitioning parties. Judge Lewis found that procedural due process had been met. It was also his finding that the BCC had relied on competent and substantial evidence to support granting the project application. Judge Lewis addressed an issue raised in the petition, that of whether the proposed number of rooms for the development (25 guest rooms) was consistent with a bed and breakfast. He noted that the facility was to be located on land designated as Neighborhood Infill under the Walton County Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Neighborhood Commercial in the Inlet Beach Neighborhood Plan (IBNP). He observed that the IBNP allows limited lodging facilities as a permitted use, defined as bed and breakfast type lodging within a primary structure that is residential in exterior character. While not identifying a maximum number of rooms for such a facility, Judge Lewis pointed out, the neighborhood plan references the Inlet Inn (a former lodging establishment within the plan area) which had 25 guest rooms. “While opponents argue that the State licensing requirements differ and limit bed and breakfast licensing to facilities of fifteen rooms or less,” he continued, “that criteria does not exist in the applicable provisions of the IBNP which apply in this case.” Judge Lewis’s conclusion was that, “the BCC properly found that the proposed development fell within the permitted uses of the property in question...” Ruling in favor of Walton County and the project applicant, he ordered denial of the petition for writ of certiorari.
By DOTTY NIST A Walton County Circuit Court judge has found that Walton County acted properly i
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