By: Terrell Arline | Ansbacher Law
On Wednesday, September 15, the First District Court of Appeal issued a landmark opinion in the Imhoff v. Walton case. This ruling fully supports comprehensive planning and a citizen’s right to challenge development orders that are inconsistent with the local comprehensive plan.
In 2017, Walton County approved the Cypress Lake development, which included 85 single-family, 40 duplex, and 16 condominium units, as well as 5,300 square feet of commercial space in four mixed-use buildings. The 23-acre parcel abuts Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, which is designated a conservation area, and the Highway 30-A Scenic Corridor.
Two private citizens and not-for-profits Beach to Bay Coalition and South Walton Community Council challenged the decision in circuit court contending that the development order issued by the County violated various provisions in the County’s comprehensive plan, including policies governing density, buffers from the state park, and adjacent neighborhoods, and policies protecting the Scenic Corridor. Relying on a decision of the Second District Court of Appeal, entitled Heine v. Lee, the trial court ruled that the citizens’ challenge could only be based on comprehensive plan policies governing “density, intensity, and land use.” In ruling for the County and the developer the trial court held that the challengers could not seek to enforce compliance with plan policies requiring buffers from the State Park, other neighborhoods, or the Scenic Corridor. The court also found that the South Walton Community Council did not have standing (the legal right to sue someone) to participate in the challenge because it “failed to establish that it possesses any interest in the project beyond that shared by all persons.” The challengers appealed the decision to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
On September 15, 2021, District Judge A. S. Tanenbaum wrote a 24-page opinion based on the essential principles of statutory construction and reversed the trial court’s ruling. In siding with the challengers, the Court specifically disagreed with the Heine decision and rejected the legal conclusion that only comprehensive plan policies dealing with “density, intensity, and land use” and could be cited to challenge development orders. Instead, the court must consider whether the development order issued by the local government “is entirely consistent with the plan.” The Court also reversed the lower court’s conclusion that the South Walton Community Council did not have standing to sue to enforce the comprehensive plan.
Attorney Terrell K. Arline is of counsel with Ansbacher Law. Mr. Alrine represented the citizens and not-for-profits groups at the trial and on appeal.