Disclaimer – I was the attorney for the Islandside respondents.
This case involves an extended and torturous set of proceedings to approve a major amendment to a PUD, originally approved in 1976, to allow redevelopment of a small commercial parcel and two recreational parcels with 300 multifamily and hotel units, a spa, restaurant and conference facilities. The Town amended the zoning code in the middle of the proceedings, and approved the amendment. When it became obvious that both the amendments and the approval would violate the comprehensive plan, it amended the comprehensive plan and further amended the zoning code to try to “save” the approval retroactively.
The approval was challenged in both declaratory and certiorari actions. In the certiorari action, the Circuit Court entered an order finding that the approval violated the clear and unambiguous language of zoning code in multiple ways, and that the Town applied an ambiguous provision in a way that was unreasonable and therefore illegal. In the introduction to the opinion, the Circuit Court noted comments by the Town’s Planning Director, that were adverse to the project.
The Town and the developer challenged the Circuit Court’s opinion to the Second District, claiming that (1) the Circuit Court reweighed the evidence, and (2) that the Circuit Court misapplied the law by failing to give deference to the Commission’s interpretation of the code and failing to construe the code broadly to favor the developer.
The District Court upheld the Circuit Court. The District Court rejected the reweighing claim, finding that the Circuit Court’s analysis focused with precision on the specific words in the Code. The District Court also found not merit in the Town’s claim that the Circuit Court decision was based on improper reweighing of the evidence. In particular, the District Court rejected the Town’s argument that the Circuit Court’s mere recitation of negative comments in the record as part of the background section of the opinion established that the circuit court reweighed the evidence. The District Court noted that “ the Town’s argument reaches too far and would encourage a judge to omit any meaningful background information in an order lest he or she be accused of impropriety. This hardly promotes judicial transparency, sound explanation and rational analysis.”
The District Court also found that, given the language of the Code and the Circuit Court’s analysis, it was not required to defer to the Town’s interpretation. It found that the Circuit Court had correctly focused on the language of the Code and applied dictionary definitions to interpret undefined terms.
The District Court rejected the Town’s claim that the previous approval of other development under the same language demonstrated that the language was ambiguous and, therefore, required deference to the Town’s interpretation:
The Town’s longstanding interpretation of its Code cannot tie the circuit court’s hands. To allow such a result would countenance a shifting sands approach to Code construction that would deny meaningful judicial review of local quasi-judicial decisions. The meaning of a code would remain in flux. Such an approach does not promote consistency in the application of law. As the wording of its laws binds a legislature, the Town is bound by the wording of its Code. This mounts a bulwark against the Town’s unfettered exercise of power.
This opinion (and practitioners should also review the circuit court opinion, which is available on Fla. L. Weekly Supp) provides ammunition to attorneys on both sides of an issue with a local government – the local zoning code (or comprehensive plan) is not “ambiguous” simply because the local government wants to reinterpret it in a particular case. Local governments are obligated to apply the plain meaning of their codes, as are the circuit courts. Failure to do so is a departure from the essential requirements of law.