Florida land case draws attention at high court

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The dispute started in 1994 when Coy Koontz sought approval from the Saint Johns River Water Management District to develop 3 acres of his land in eastern Orange County.

But more than 18 years later, a case that started out as a seemingly routine clash about environmental permits is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where state and national business groups, government organizations and the Obama administration have weighed in.

Justices next Tuesday are scheduled to hear arguments in an effort by Koontz’s son — the elder Koontz died during the case — to overturn a Florida Supreme Court decision that sided with the water-management district. The case stems from the district’s denial of permits after the elder Koontz refused to go along with improving wetlands on another site as a way to mitigate damage to his land.

Koontz filed a lawsuit arguing that the permit denial amounted to a government “taking” of his property, and a circuit judge agreed and awarded $376,000 in compensation based on lost expected rental income. But the Florida Supreme Court in 2011 overturned the ruling, which a state appeals court had approved.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in October to hear arguments in the case, leading to a flood of briefs from dozens of groups. Backing Koontz are organizations such as the Association of Florida Community Developers, the Florida Farm Bureau, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Home Builders.

On the other side are groups such as the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties and the federal government. The Supreme Court on Friday approved a request by the U.S. solicitor general to take part in next week’s arguments.

The briefs indicate the case could have potentially far-reaching implications for land owners and government agencies, which frequently tangle about issues such as wetland permits. Attorneys for the Obama administration wrote in a brief last month that the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling was in line with the principles of earlier U.S. Supreme Court cases.

“Reversal of that decision would impose inappropriate burdens and costs on state and federal land-use regulation and would not be in the interests of either landowners or the government,” the administration brief said.

But a brief filed by the Association of Florida Community Developers, the Florida Farm Bureau and two other groups warned that the state Supreme Court decision invites “state-sanctioned mischief” in decisions about approving land regulations.

“Meaningful negotiations — those focused on conditions directly related and proportionate to impacts from a proposed land use — lead to sound public policy. Extortion does not,” the brief said. “Yet for Floridians like (the groups filing the brief and their members), the Florida Supreme Court’s decision reduces land-use decisions to just that. It transforms an already tilted process into one where state-sanctioned abuse may go unchecked.”

The opposing briefs cast the circumstances of the permit denial somewhat differently, but the elder Koontz sought approval to develop 3.7 acres of more than 14 acres that he owned near State Road 50 and the East-West Expressway in Orange County. The property, which included wetlands, was part of the Econlockhatchee River Hydrologic Basin and was in a designated protection area.

Koontz agreed to preserve more than 11 acres, but the water-management district wanted additional steps to mitigate damage to wetlands on the site. In a court brief, the district said it gave Koontz a series of mitigation options, but the case centers on a proposal that would have required him to make improvements to wetlands on district-owned land that was miles away.

After Koontz rejected that proposal and the permits were denied, he filed the lawsuit. Attorneys for Koontz’s son argued in a brief that the district held the man’s property “hostage” unless he agreed to make improvements on the unrelated property.

“The Florida Supreme Court based its decision in large part on its desire to preserve the freedom and flexibility of land-use agencies like the district to make ‘deals’ with permit applicants,” the brief said. “It did so, but at too high a cost to the constitutional rights of these applicants.”

But in its brief, the district said the elder Koontz’s offer to preserve much of his land was not adequate to offset the environmental impacts of the development. Also, it said nothing was taken from Koontz because he did not spend money to carry out the proposed mitigation project and did not give up his land.

“Here, petitioner never lost any property as a result of the district’s alleged ‘demand’ that he perform off-site mitigation. Petitioner never agreed to do any off-site mitigation,” the brief said. “He never spent a penny on public improvements or off-site mitigation or any other efforts to comply with any condition on the use of the land. He was never ousted from his land. He never lost the right to exclude others from it.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.