Monday, July 8, 2013

Florida District Court of Appeal Upholds City Commission's Legislative Function

Ponce Inlet Lighthouse
The Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court decision that would have imposed millions in liability on the City of Ponce Inlet for an alleged violation of the Bert Harris Private Property Act.  The Plaintiff threatened to seek $55 million in damages.  The Bert Harris Act provides a basis for real property owners to seek and obtain compensation when government action inordinately burdens and diminishes a property's value.  

The District Court of Appeal decision in Town of Ponce Inlet v. Pacetta (Case D12-1982), released on July 5, 2013, held:

Pacetta based its Harris Act claim on the similar theory that it had a vested right, through the application of the principle of equitable estoppel, to develop its properties as negotiated by the parties, notwithstanding the fact that such development would violate Ponce Inlet's Comprehensive Land-Use Plan. However, as explained in Halls River, equitable estoppel can be invoked only when a property owner relies in good faith upon some government action. No such good faith reliance was established in this case. At the time Pacetta purchased its properties, Ponce Inlet's Comprehensive Land-Use Plan expressly prohibited the type of development which Pacetta proposed for its properties. Any assurances by town officials that the Comprehensive Plan would be amended so as to authorize Pacetta's development plans could not be relied upon in good faith by Pacetta, since town officials lacked the authority to unilaterally amend the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan. See § 163.3184(4), (15), Fla. Stat. (2009) (requiring any proposed change to Comprehensive Plans to be subject to approval by various government agencies). Recognition of a vested right based on assurances from town officials to amend the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan would also be in violation of public policy, in light of the public hearings and other government approvals required for Comprehensive Plan amendments. Id. Accordingly, the trial court's order finding Ponce Inlet liable to Pacetta under the Harris Act is reversed.
The bottom line is that the Fifth DCA upheld the power of local commissions to amend their own Comprehensive Plans, a legislative function.  The Bert Harris Act cannot circumvent that power.  (The District Court of Appeal's decision is not final until any Motion for Rehearing is decided.)