Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chief Judge David Gersten Breathes New Life into Property Rights in South Florida

Third District Court of Appeal Chief Judge David M. Gersten, appointed in 1989 by Governor Martinez, has given us few hints of his judicial philosophy. Apparently, the judges are assigned to the same number of panels (about 750) each year. But, as of mid-2008, Judge Gersten had averaged 11 signed opinions/year since he was appointed. Compare this to Senior Judge Alan Schwartz, who has averaged 45/year for 30 years, or to Judge Cortinas, who has been on the bench only three years, but has signed 46 opinions/year.

Two months ago, in CNL Resort Hotel v City of Doral, 991 So.2d 417, Chief Judge Gersten turned a lot of South Florida lawyers' heads in a remarkable decision. On the surface, the issue seemed pretty simple ... whether a property owner can challenge a comprehensive plan on the basis that it fails to protect [the owner's] property rights. Even the Florida Department of Community Affairs agreed that the property owner had a legitimate gripe. But the City of Doral and the ALJ disagreed.

Judge Gersten (with the apparent agreement of Judges Shepherd and Rothenberg), simply buried the ALJ -- and the City of Doral's lawyers -- with the following exposition on property rights.
Private property rights have long been viewed as sacrosanct and fundamentally immune from government interference. The strong tradition of protecting private property rights against governmental interference stems back to both English common law and Lockean philosophy. Lockean philosophy emphasized that property rights are a natural, pre-political attribute of human beings. See James W. Ely, Jr., The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights 10 (2d ed. 1998).
Thus, it was only natural that our constitutional founders would safeguard property from governmental intervention. Our founders drafted the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution to provide that no person shall have property “taken for public use, without just compensation.” See U.S. Const. Amend. V. The Fifth Amendment, Takings Clause, is made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. See U.S. Const. Amend. XIV. Florida’s state constitution also provides that “no private property shall be taken except for a public purpose and with full compensation.” See Art. X, §6, Fla. Const.
Florida further protects these sacrosanct private property rights when evaluating a comprehensive development plan. Florida zoning law requires that a governmental agency, such as the City, adopt a plan that coordinates with the state’s plan. See §163.3177(6)(h), Fla. Stat. (2006). Florida’s State Comprehensive Plan provides that “Florida shall protect private property rights and recognize the existence of legitimate and often competing public and private interests in land use regulations and other government action.” See §187.201(14)(a), Fla. Stat. (2006). Further, the goals and policies contained in the State Comprehensive Plan shall be reasonably applied where they are economically and environmentally feasible, not contrary to the public interest, and consistent with the protection of private property rights. See §187.101, Fla. Stat. (2006).
Without belaboring the point, Judge Gersten's opinion concludes that CNL had every right to challenge a Comprehensive Plan that did not consider its impacts on CNL's property rights (i.e., property value). If that isn't a major breakthrough in this day of planning "for the sake of planners" -- and damn the landowners who get in their way -- nothing is.

I confess that I did not feel positively about Judge Gersten when he joined the other two members of the panel (Levy and Goderich, JJ) in Monroe County v. Ambrose, et al., 866 So. 2d 707 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003), a 500+ plaintiff suit to establish statutory vested rights to build on platted lots in the Florida Keys. I was then, and remain, firmly of the opinion that this was part of a legitimate compromise made by the Florida Senate in 1972 when it adopted the Area of Critical State Concern statute, for the simple reason that no State Senator wanted part of his jurisdiction to be subjected to a State takeover of local zoning laws. It helped that a well-preserved legislative history conclusively proved our point. In Ambrose, Judges Gersten, Levy, and Goderich simply re-wrote the law the way they wanted it to be. Maybe they thought it would be too disruptive to overturn the "Save the Keys" applecart after 20 years of State tyranny, but I still believe their decision was wrong.

Now, if we could just get Judge Gersten to write faster. It took 385 days after oral argument, for this non-final order appeal to be decided. Presumably, there was even a longer delay in the administrative ComPlan proceedings below. The Ambrose per curiam decision was written in 308 days. Wars have been started, and won or lost; babies are conceived, born, and in bassinettes; or you can get an MBA; in 385 days. 385 days is just too long to wait for an eight-page opinion (especially when it's an appeal from a non-final order).

P.S. I admit that being on 750 panels/year -- that's 15/week, or 3/day if you get 2 weeks of vacation -- would drive most people crazy.

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