Monday, April 6, 2009

If a $2 Poll Tax is Unconstitutional, Can a $4,500 Ripeness Fee be Constitutional?

I understand charging a fee for reviewing building plans -- or to process a Conditional Use or Special Exception -- but charging a $4,500 fee to request Just Compensation? The Monroe County Commission may think this is a terrific idea. Why, just think, a $4,500 "ripeness fee" might just keep a lot of those damn, rabble-rousing landowners from asking for "money" for their regulatory taken property.

On December 31, 2008, Florida's Third District Court of Appeal, once again, explained how the Florida Keys' unusual Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) process works. See Collins, et al. v. Monroe County, et al., 999 So. 2d 709 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2008) and Shands v. City of Marathon, 999 So. 2d 718 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2008). It is also worth noting that the New Jersey Supreme Court just upheld an almost identical BUD in OFP, LLC v. State of New Jersey, 930 A.2d 442 (NJ App 2007), affirmed, 963 A.2d 810 (NJ 2008). (So we are not alone anymore.)

In 1986, the State imposed a confiscatory zoning map on the Florida Keys. It downzoned at least 5,000 platted lots, making them unbuildable. Until First English in 1987, Florida's position was that confiscatory zoning ordinances were unconstitutional on Due Process grounds. See Dade County v National Bulk Carriers, 450 So.2d 213 (Fla. 1984) (Florida did not recognize a right to monetary compensation for regulatory takings by zoning ordinances.) In 1986, the State planning agency was staring at a major Due Process lawsuit that would have taken down its ComPlan in a heartbeat.

In 1985, along came Charles Siemon. He came up with the State's first (and only) "ripening" ordinance. The 1986 BUD gave the County Commission authority to waive any land use regulation that "took" property. The 1986 language was painfully unconstitutional, as it required the landowner to first "attempt" to sell the property for 40% of its pre-regulation Fair Market Value (FMV). If that failed, and the County declined to waive its regulation(s), the County would pay the landowner 40% of the pre-regulation FMV. Judge Richard Payne struck down both provisions in a regulatory taking lawsuit we filed in 1988. The 3rd DCA affirmed. See Monroe County v. Gonzalez, 593 So.2d 1143 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1992).

In 1990, we filed another regulatory taking lawsuit, this time against the City of Key West. See Key West v Berg, 655 So. 2d 196 (Fla. 3rd DCA), rev. denied, 663 So. 2d 629 (Fla. 1995). In 1994, a new Key West ComPlan included a reference to a not-yet-adopted BUD process. Judge Richard Payne agreed Berg did not have to exhaust a not-yet-written regulation, but the 3rd DCA reversed, asking, at oral argument, "why can't you just write the City a letter?" On remand, the City settled with Mr. Berg for $3.5 million.

In 1993, the State of Florida inserted the 1994 Key West BUD language -- which the State also wrote -- into Monroe County's new ComPlan (effective 1977). The County adopted implementing regulations in 1998, and the 1998 BUD ordinance remained in effect until 2008. A new -- but much less constitutional -- BUD ordinance went into effect last year.

The law is clear that a Florida Keys landowner -- who believes their land has been subjected to a regulatory taking -- must petition for a Beneficial Use Determination before his or her taking claim is "ripe." It is equally clear that the Statute of Limitation does not begin to run on a Florida Keys regulatory taking claim until the BUD determination has been rendered. This protects the landowner who is unaware of their claim, and prevents the local government from receiving windfalls when landowners fail to exercise their right to sue for a regulatory taking. It does not protect the government from claims the BUD process has become "futile" on a case-by-case basis.

Last I looked, the right to Just Compensation for a "taking" of property is enshrined in both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions -- just as is the Right to Vote. We don't allow governments to charge a fee for exercising the right to vote -- not a dollar, nor a penny -- even though it costs the government a boatload of money to buy the voting machines, print the ballots, and staff the polling places.

In 1997, Monroe County began charging a $500 fee for processing a BUD petition. Apparently nobody complained, so the fee began to creep up, first to $750, then to $1,300. We filed about 25 petitions the day before the increase to $1,300 went into effect in 2005. Now -- as you can see from the agenda item I posted on Google Docs -- the leeches in the planning department want to increase the fee to $4,490.

For at least the past two years, we have been considering filing a lawsuit to declare the BUD unconstitutional, on several grounds, and to declare the Florida Keys' confiscatory land use regulations unconstitutional on Due Process grounds. What the State and County planners keep forgetting is the holding in Joint Ventures v. Florida DOT, 563 So. 2d 622 (Fla. 1990). In Joint Ventures, the supreme court held a legislative act that precludes all development on a parcel of land, is unconstitutional on Due Process grounds, unless the landowner has a direct avenue to condemnation proceedings. The supreme court specifically stated that the right to bring an inverse condemnation proceeding, as FDOT argued, does not suffice. In the end, the FDOT land-freezing statute was declared unconstitutional on Due Process grounds. (Note the similarity to National Bulk Carriers, above.)

None of the 5 or 6 Florida Keys' BUD ordinances provide affected landowners with a right to a condemnation proceeding. All you get is a letter in the mail that includes an offer to buy the property at a price that is about 15% of what one would receive, on average, in a condemnation proceeding. And -- if you turn down or ignore the offer, the government is content to let you rot in Hell forever. That is not Just Compensation, and it violates Due Process big time.

As they say in the advertising business, watch this space.

No comments: