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Pinellas County v. The Richman Group of Florida, Inc.

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

November 29, 2017

PINELLAS COUNTY, FLORIDA, an Independent and Chartered Florida County, Appellant,
THE RICHMAN GROUP OF FLORIDA, INC., a Florida corporation, Appellee.


         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Pinellas County; Walter L. Schafer, Jr., Judge.

          Sylvia H. Walbolt, Chris W. Altenbernd, and Nicholas A. Brown of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, P.A., Tampa; and James Bennett, Pinellas County Attorney's Office, Clearwater, for Appellant.

          Landis V. Curry, III, Scott A. McLaren, E.D. Armstrong, III, and Fred C. Marshall, II of Hill, Ward & Henderson, P.A., Tampa, for Appellee.

          CRENSHAW, JUDGE.

         Pinellas County appeals the final judgment awarding the Richman Group of Florida, Inc., over $16.5 million in damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012), based on the trial court's conclusion that the County violated Richman's substantive due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by denying Richman's proposed amendment to the County's land use plan. Because the trial court erred in concluding that the County had no rational basis to deny the proposed amendment, we reverse the final judgment. In light of this disposition, we do not reach the County's remaining arguments.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2012, Richman executed a contract to purchase 34.55 acres of land in the City of Safety Harbor subject to Richman obtaining certain government approvals to develop the land. At issue in this appeal is Richman's attempt to obtain approval of an amendment to the Countywide Future Land Use Plan that would have changed the land use designation of roughly sixteen acres of land from Industrial Limited (IL) to Residential Medium (RM) so that Richman could develop the property in a way that is not permitted on land with the IL designation.

         A. The Legislative Framework

         Under the Special Act governing the County's land use plan, only a local government with jurisdiction over the subject property may submit a proposal to amend the plan to the Pinellas Planning Council. Ch. 90-396, § 10(4)(a), at 40, Laws of Fla. The Council reviews the proposal and makes a recommendation to approve, deny, continue, or alter it. Id. § 10(4)(a), (b), at 40. If the Council recommends approval, it forwards the proposal along with its recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners for a public hearing and vote in the Board's capacity as the County Planning Authority (CPA). Id. § 10(4)(d), at 40. If the CPA votes to deny the proposal, any substantially affected person may seek a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) pursuant to Chapter 120, Florida Statutes; this hearing "is limited to a review of the facts pertaining to the subject property, the countywide future land use plan, and those rules, standards, policies, and procedures applicable thereto." Id. § 10(4)(d), (f), at 40-41. The hearing "is not the appropriate forum for a constitutional challenge." Id. § 10(4)(f), at 41. After the hearing, the ALJ's "recommended order shall be forwarded to and considered by the [CPA] in a final hearing. The basis for the [CPA's] final decision approving or denying the proposed amendment is limited to the findings of fact of the [ALJ]." Id. § 10(4)(d), at 40-41. The CPA's decisions under the act "are legislative in nature" and are subject to judicial review. Id. § 10(4)(g), at 41. Importantly, nothing in the Special Act mandates that proposed amendments that are consistent with the amendment review criteria must be granted by the CPA.

         In line with this legislative framework, Richman applied to the City of Safety Harbor to initiate the process of amending the County's land use plan. After the Safety Harbor Commission approved Richman's proposal by a vote of 3-2, despite significant neighborhood opposition to it, the city submitted the proposal to the Council, which recommended approval by a vote of 8-5. The Council forwarded the proposal to the CPA along with its recommendation to approve the amendment.

         In May 2013, the CPA considered Richman's proposal at a public hearing where hundreds of residents from the area surrounding the subject property expressed opposition to the amendment. The residents articulated specific, rational concerns that amending the land use designation to allow Richman's planned development of the property would cause traffic, transportation, safety, and economic problems. Members of the CPA, as well as some of the residents, highlighted the scarcity of IL-designated land in the area and explained that removing the IL designation would harm the local economy because it would result in even less land available to support "target employers" that bring high-paying jobs to the County's residents. Citing Resolution 06-3, which set forth "the need to reserve industrial parcels for target employers" in Pinellas County, the CPA unanimously voted to deny the amendment.

         B. The Administrative Proceedings

         As a person substantially affected by the CPA's denial, Richman obtained a hearing before an ALJ. The parties stipulated that the issue to be decided at that hearing was "[t]he manner in, and extent to, which the amendment is consistent" with the criteria in the rules governing amendments to the County's land use plan. The rules, promulgated pursuant to the Special Act, provide that "[i]n the consideration of a regular Countywide Plan Map amendment, it is the objective of these Countywide Rules to evaluate the amendment so as to make a balanced legislative determination based on" certain relevant considerations. The crux of the parties' dispute at this hearing was whether Resolution 06-3 was part of these relevant considerations. Agreeing with Richman, the ALJ resolved this dispute by finding that "Resolution 06-3 . . . is not a source of criteria applicable to the [a]mendment" because that resolution had not been "repeated, paraphrased, or adopted by reference in the Countywide Rules." Thus, to the extent that the CPA denied the amendment because it was inconsistent with the relevant considerations in the rules-namely, Resolution 06-3-the ALJ concluded that the amendment was indeed consistent with the relevant criteria. However, the ALJ did not find, or otherwise conclude, that the CPA had to approve the amendment because it was consistent.

         The ALJ did find that other sections of the rules were relevant to the dispute. Among those other sections, the ALJ highlighted section, which provides the following purpose behind the IL designation:

It is the purpose of this category to depict those areas of the county that are now developed, or appropriate to be developed, in a limited industrial manner; and so as to encourage the reservation and use of consolidated areas for industrial and industrial/mixed use in a manner and location consistent with ...

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