Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Well, it has been almost a year since I updated the Grand Theft: Property Blog. So a brief review of our regulatory takings cases in the Florida Keys appears to be in order.

I should point out that, in 2009, we spent about six months getting our Collins and Galleon Bay regulatory taking cases out of the hands of a pro-government trial judge, David Audlin. Judge Audlin had dismissed four regulatory taking cases in 2007 -- Collins v Monroe County, Shands v City of Marathon, McCole v City of Marathon, and Beyers v City of Marathon -- and Judge Luis Garcia dismissed a fifth case, Sutton v. Monroe County. On December 31, 2008, the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal reversed Judge Audlin's dismissals of Collins and Shands -- but that still left McCole, Beyer, and Sutton to be decided.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal (3rd DCA) affirmed Judge Garcia's dismissal of the Sutton case on December 23, 2009. We were surprised by the 3rd DCA's decision because it was completely contrary to the Collins and Shands decisions of a year earlier. We filed a Motion for Rehearing in Sutton. That was denied May 25, 2010. We then filed a Petition for Discretionary Review with the Florida Supreme Court. That petition was denied on December 18, 2010 -- less than two weeks ago. There are some other options available to Mrs. Sutton, but I will leave that for another day.

The 3rd DCA's decision in Beyers v. City of Marathon, on June 9, 2010, was consistent with its earlier decisions in Collins and Shands, and the Beyer case was remanded to the trial court. However, the 3rd DCA rejected the McCole v. City of Marathon appeal on April 21, 2010, based upon its logic in the Sutton appeal.

This left us with successful appeals in Collins, Shands, and Beyers, but with completely contradictory decisions in Sutton and McCole. Because of the conflict, we filed petitions for discretionary review, in Sutton and McCole, before the Florida Supreme Court in mid-2010. Two weeks ago, on December 18, 2010, the Florida Supreme Court denied review in Sutton and McCole.

The only fact that distinguishes Sutton and McCole from Collins, Shands, and Beyers, from Sutton and McCole is that Ms. Sutton and the McColes "asked" if they might be able to develop their property many years ago, and were told that it was "unlikely" that they could do so. Neither Ms. Sutton nor the McColes requested a Beneficial Use Determination after being told development was "unlikely." In our opinion, this does not rise to the level of "ripeness" required by the U.S. Supreme Court in Williamson County. For that reason alone, we believe the Sutton and McCole decisions are wrong.

Ms. Sutton's and Ms. McCole's remedies are somewhat limited. Both can file regulatory taking claims in Federal court now that they have "exhausted State judicial remedies." The 3rd DCA, in a footnote, also invited Ms. Sutton to file a new building permit application. This, too, is an option.

It is fair to say that the status of regulatory taking claims in the Florida Keys remains somewhat unclear, even where the landowner has only informally sought a development order or building permit more than four years ago. At least this appears to be true in the minds of the appellate judges in Miami. Perhaps a Federal District Court decision to the contrary will change their minds.

In short, that's what we've been doing this past year. We are also moving forward on the Collins case, which is set for a liability trial in April 2011, and on the Galleon Bay case, another lawsuit that Judge Audlin screwed up during his reign in 2007. But ... more on those cases later this year.

Monday, January 25, 2010

When will the Government Figure it Out?

Three weeks ago, the State of Florida deposited $8.85 million with the Clerk of Court for Monroe County to compensate the landowners in Florida DEP v. West for the condemnation of their North Key Largo properties in April 2004. When this eminent domain action was filed as a slow-take in 1995, the State offered a mere $160,000 for the subject properties. Our response to the slow-take was a regulatory taking counterclaim. That was our way to protect landowners from the State "walking away" from any jury verdict it did not like.

Land values began to rise in 2001 -- although not on these properties. In 2004 the State opted for a "quick-take." At that time, the State's estimated fair market value of the two parcels -- based on the confiscatory regulatory scheme -- was $630,000. But after executing the quick-take, the State could no longer walk away from a jury verdict that exceeded its budget. After all, nobody had been able to build on North Key Largo since February 8, 1982 (except at the Ocean Reef Club and a few existing subdivisions).

After the 2004 quick-takes, we re-cast the regulatory taking counterclaim into a jury instruction on condemnation blight. Even though the Florida Supreme Court has embraced condemnation blight on at least two occasions, the State's in-house attorneys could not grasp the concept. Fortunately we had a trial judge, Luis Garcia, who understands government cannot prohibit a landowner from using his property, and then benefit from its own actions by driving down the property's acquisition cost. (In 2001, Judge Garcia ruled the same way in another case, Shadek v Monroe County, where White & Case attorney Doug Halsey raised the same issues and Monroe County settled by paying $6 million in temporary taking damages.)

So ... the government goes down for the count again! I have remarked, on numerous occasions, that the reason for this waste of money is nothing more than the "tyranny of the majority" in small, attractive, relatively well-to-do communities such as the Florida Keys. Those who already own homes in the Keys will do everything in their power to prevent others from doing so. To that end, the "got-miners" elect like-minded County Commissioners, who respond by prohibiting new development wherever they find it. It's a self-perpetuating, downward spiral, that could well -- unless reversed -- bankrupt every owner of developed property in the Keys.

To got-miners: think about it!