Busy day for suits involving land use
Lawsuits over developments on waterfront areas of Citrus may signal a trend that is likely to become familiar in the future.
By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published July 21, 2006
INVERNESS - More than four months after county commissioners rejected plans for a 499-unit RV park on his property, John Eden plans to fight their decision in court.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday, Eden said he wants a judge to reverse the commission's unanimous vote.
Thursday also marked a small victory for another developer suing the county: Senior Judge Charles M. Harris denied the county's motion to dismiss the latest lawsuit over the Halls River Retreat Condominium Project.
And Betty Berger, who filed a lawsuit against the county in February disputing a legal settlement that allowed a 50-unit housing project on the Withlacoochee River, has asked a judge to dismiss the case.
All three lawsuits involve controversial developments on vacant pieces of property in waterfront areas of the county - a trend that is likely to continue as growth in Citrus heats up.
Eden's suit alleges that the County Commission's March decision to give a thumbs down to the proposed Preservation Pointe luxury RV resort project was not based on "competent substantial evidence."
Expert testimony and Eden's application for the project showed that it followed rules set out in the county's comprehensive plan and land development code, according to Eden's suit.
The only opposition to the project commissioners heard, the suit says, "was the testimony of residents and owners of properties in the area who voiced a number of concerns."
But those concerns about density, traffic and environmental impact should have been backed up by "technical expertise," the suit says, not just "personal preferences."
The suit includes an 869-page appendix of affidavits, transcripts and other evidence.
While that suit sat in the clerk's filing system Thursday afternoon, attorneys just a few floors away took the first steps in arguing the latest land use lawsuit over the Halls River Retreat condominium project.
In a lawsuit filed in October, Halls River Development Inc. alleged that the county's elimination of the mixed-use zoning category caused its property to decline in value by $3.5-million.
New Port Richey attorney Frederick T. Reeves, representing the developer, told Harris Thursday that he wanted the court to require the county to re-issue its original development order for the project.
Harris said the county issued a development order for the property, "then the county comes and pulls the rug out from under us and takes the development order back."
In February 2002, the County Commission voted 3-2 to approve Halls River Retreat, a 54-unit condominium time-share. The Planning and Development Review Board had rejected it.
Environmentalists sued after the commission's vote, fearing the project would pollute the Halls River, a state-designated Outstanding Florida Waterway.
In November 2002, Circuit Judge Jack Springstead in Hernando County ruled that the project did not fit along the riverbank, according to the county's own comprehensive plan, which seeks to limit residential growth in coastal areas.
The county appealed, but lost.
Now Halls River Development is suing under the state's Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, which lets property owners sue local governments if their property value is "inordinately burdened" by government action.
Assistant County Attorney Michele Lieberman argued Thursday that Halls River Development did not submit a property appraisal within the deadline required by the act.
And she said the suit should be dismissed because a case involving the Halls River Development property is pending.
Harris denied her motion.
Reeves also moved for a change of venue, arguing that it would not be possible to find a fair jury in Citrus. But Harris dismissed that motion Thursday.
When Harris asked Reeves whether Florida laws entitled his client to a jury trial, Reeves said he did not know.
"If it was a jury trial, I would consider your motion seriously," Harris said.
Without that information, Harris dismissed the motion. Reeves can bring up the issue again after examining the law.
At the end of Thursday's hearing, Harris - who previously served on the 5th District Court of Appeal - said he wanted to introduce himself.
"I will not be looking for favor from the community, nor will I be influenced by criticism," he said.
A judge has not yet ruled on the joint motion for dismissal filed by Berger's attorneys, county attorney Robert "Butch" Battista and Inverness attorney Clark Stillwell this week.
Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-7309.
[Last modified July 20, 2006, 19:39:23]
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