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House bill pits cities and counties vs. property rights supporters

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A House bill prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Florida landowner is pitting property rights supporters against local governments.

The Supreme Court in 2013 overturned a Florida Supreme Court ruling against the late Coy A. Koontz Sr., who sought to build on 3.7 of his 15 acres in Orange County.

The St. Johns River Water Management District told Koontz in 1994 that he could build if he reduced the development size or paid to restore wetlands on agency property seven miles away. Koontz refused.

The U.S. Supreme Court said previous legal tests of whether a constitutionally prohibited taking of private property occurs applies even when government denies a permit or demands money.

Property rights supporters hailed the decision. And in January, state Rep. Katie Edwards, a Democrat from Plantation, filed HB 383, which creates a cause of action to recover monetary damages for landowners where state and local governments impose conditions that rise to the level of “unconstitutional exactions.”

The House Local Government Affairs Subcommittee on Wednesday spent nearly an hour on the bill and an amendment by state Rep. Dwight Dudley, a Democrat from St. Petersburg. He proposed allowing courts to award attorney’s fees to government agencies as well as to landowners.

David Cruz, representing the Florida League of Cities, said the bill is a concern because it seeks to create a new type of lawsuit that doesn’t exist in any state. He said the bill would allow payments to huge developers in claims against small cities.

“This would prevent frivolous lawsuits,” Cruz said. “It would make sure everyone understands you have to have a good claim.”

The Florida Association of Counties also raised concerns along with the city of Melbourne and the Space Coast League of Cities. Supporters included the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, the Builders Association of South Florida and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

But Gary K. Hunter, representing the Property Rights Coalition, said no individual or small business would ever risk challenging the government if they could be bankrupted by being forced to pay government fees in a case they thought was legitimate.

“I understand the concern about creating a cottage industry of lawsuits against government,” Hunter said. “That is not what this bill is intended to do. The bill is intended to curb bad behavior (by government). And so the way government avoids paying attorney fees in these cases is not to impose an exaction that’s unconstitutional.”

Dudley’s amendment to the strike-all amendment was voted down on a voice vote although some Republicans on the committee said they hoped to see his concerns addressed in a future bill amendment.

HB 383 passed the Local Government Affairs Subcommittee and has two more committee stops. There is no Senate companion to the House bill.

The bill also amends the Bert J. Harris, Jr., Private Property Act to provide that only those property owners whose real property is the subject of and directly impacted by the action of a governmental entity may bring suit under the act, according to a House bill analysis.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

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