Stranahan House, Inc. et al v. City of Ft. Lauderdale, 32 Fla. L. Weekly D2702a (Fla. 4th DCA November 14, 2007).
This case is a must read for anyone involved in litigating and settling land use cases because it clarifies principles of how to settle without accidentally “contracting away the police power.”
As indicated above, developer bought a developed site and a piece of undeveloped land that was adjacent to Stranahan House – a designated historic resource. The developer filed a site plan under the then-current regulations (1999 version). The City tried to buy the undeveloped land through eminent domain, and the developer counter-claimed for damages and for a declaration that the site plan was consistent with the regulations.
The court granted summary judgment against the condemnation for failure to demonstrate a public necessity and also ultimately determined that the developer could maintain the declaratory action. Eventually there was a settlement. The Settlement was discussed at a non-public hearing and then subject to a public hearing that appears to have allowed public comment
The day after the City Commission approved the Settlement Agreement, the Court approved the Final Consent Judgement. The judgment included findings that the site plan complied with the zoning code and comprehensive plan, that the site plan was compatible with the surrounding area (including Stranahan House). In addition, the Judgement recognized, in accordance with the Settlement (a) that ordinances had changed, (b) that it was in everyone’s interest for the developer to file an amended site plan that provided for a plaza, (c) that the site plan would be reviewed under the 1999 regulations, and (d) that the City would expedite that review, and allow the project to proceed under the original site plan if the amended site plan were not approved.
The developer filed the amended site plan, which was reviewed by the DRC, the Planning and Zoning Board, and the City Commission.
Stranahan House filed a cert petition attacking the approval of the first site plan as illegal contract zoning under Chung v. Sarasota County and because the process did not include a hearing before the City, DRC and Z & P Board. It filed a cert petition attacking the second site plan (and a separate 163.3215 petition – see above) on the basis that the Board did not afford interested parties due process, the site plan was not submitted to the historic preservation board, the City failed to apply the 2005 zoning requirements and the site plan did not comply with those requirements.
The circuit court consolidated the two petitions and denied them. In denying the first petition, finding that the approval of the settlement under these terms did not abrogate the legislative standards of the zoning code, complied with the zoning code, and was made in good faith. Because the settlement required compliance with the zoning code, it did not constitute contract zoning. It also concluded that the approval of the second site plan comported with due process and the decision was supported by competent substantial evidence. Implicitly, the circuit court found that the Settlement Agreement could provide for the application of the earlier zoning regulations without being contract zoning.
The Fourth DCA upheld the circuit court.
Notably, the Fourth District found that the failure to attack the Judgment, but to instead attack the site plan approval through certiorari, was fatal because the Judgment – which essentially approved the first site plan – was not a development order. The Court noted that under applicable precedents, Stranahan House could have moved for post-judgment intervention for that purpose.
Also notably, the Fourth District held that it did not have jurisdiction to review the circuit court’s determination that Stranahan House did not receive due process before the DRC and City because their ability to present extensive testimony was limited. The Court found the circuit court had applied the right law in evaluating this claim, and that it would not second-guess the lower court’s decision.
Finally, the Fourth District found that the circuit court had applied the correct law in considering the 1999 zoning regulations rather than the 2005 regulations, because the Judgment called for them.
What we don’t know is what would have happened if Stranahan House had intervened in the fight between the developer and the City, and had appealed the Judgment. Would the Court have determined that the judgment could not alter the terms of the applicable zoning regulations? Would it have found that the approval of a site plan through that process was improper? We don’t know, though I suspect not.