Florida appeals court orders enviro groups to pay attorney fees

A state appeals court ruled on Tuesday that environmental groups must pay the attorneys fees of Martin County, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and development interests for appealing a land-use case.

Richard Grosso, an attorney for the groups 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance, says the ruling sets a chilling precedent for groups that seek to enforce state growth management laws.

Martin County in 2007 reduced from 20 acres to two acres the minimum lot size required in 191,000 acres of designated agricultural land in western Martin County. 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance filed a legal challenge, contending the land-use change failed to establish meaningful and predictable standards for protecting environmentally sensitive lands.

An administrative law judge determined that the change won’t create urban sprawl or more development because homes would be clustered on smaller lots with open space set aside for agriculture, conservation or parks.

When the groups appealed, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that they lacked the legal standing because they were not affected since there was no increase in development. The majority of the three-judge panel then imposed sanctions and ordered the groups to pay legal fees incurred by the county, DCA and intervenors Martin Island Way LLC and Island Way, LC.

But in dissent, Judge William A. Van Nortwick Jr. said the case was “not close to providing a basis to impose sanctions.” The erroneous standard used by the majority to impose sanctions “will create a precedent that will severely chill” those who seek appeals, Van Nortwick wrote.

Attorneys representing Martin County and the intervenors could not be reached for comment. Grosso, executive director of the Everglades Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, said his clients will consider their options, including appealing to the Florida Supreme Court or asking the 1st District Court of Appeal to rehear the case.

Grosso said his clients disagree with the administrative law judge’s finding of fact that the groups will not be affected. And Grosso said that in response to their appeal, the majority judges with the 1st District Court of Appeal relied on the same facts established by the administrative law judge, creating a “Catch-22” that resulted in the sanctions.

“Enforcement of the growth management act will be a nullity” if the ruling stands. Grosso said. “No one will seek to enforce it any more out of fear of sanctions for attorney fees.”

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting brucebritchie@gmail.com.)