STUART – A recent circuit court decision means Martin County attorneys must square off in court soon with a Hobe Sound developer claiming the Board of County Commissioners has deprived him of the right to develop his Bridge Road property.
Hobe Sound Ranch Ltd. sued the county last year after the Commission voted unanimously April 24 to deny the company’s request for a Comprehensive Plan amendment moving the Urban Service Boundary to enable public utilities for its planned 2,400-unit, mixed-used development on the 2,600-acre site. Circuit Court Judge William Roby subsequently dismissed the lawsuit at the county’s request but allowed the company’s attorney, Mike Eckert with Tallahassee-based Hopping Green & Sam’s, to file an amended complaint in October. On Jan. 17, Senior Assistant County Attorney Ruth Holmes received word that Judge Roby had denied her request to either dismiss the subsequent lawsuit or eliminate certain paragraphs in the complaint. Mr. Eckert told the court in his latest litigation that the county’s current agricultural zoning on the land – which only permits one residential unit per 20 acres – has essentially become a taking of his client’s private property rights.
“Building with this zoning would be economic suicide,” he said in the amended complaint. “The developer bought the property with the expectation that it would be developed as a mixed-use project.”
In his amended complaint, Mr. Eckert compared the County Commission’s April rejection of his client’s request to the Board’s agreement that same day to move the Urban Service Boundary for the Pineland Prairie project near Palm City, poised to be an even larger project of more than 4,000 residences. Ms. Holms said Jan. 27 the attorney’s latest legal maneuver did not take her by surprise but disputed the aforementioned paragraphs, which she referred to as “inflammatory accusations against the county” that have nothing to do with a taking, officially known as inverse condemnation.
“I moved to strike certain paragraphs as an alternative to motion to dismiss,” she said. “You have to keep your eye on the ball, and they just had nothing to do with what a plaintiff had to prove to get an inverse condemnation award. They would have to prove the county took an action that resulted in taking substantially of the economic value of the properties.”
Although Ms. Holms said she couldn’t speak to the county staff’s reasons for viewing the Hobe Sound Ranch project as being conducive to urban sprawl while not considering the larger Pineland Prairie development in that way, she believed the difference could lie in the latter’s inclusion of a significant retail and business component.
“I think the answer to that is you have to look at the way our planners viewed details of the projects,” she explained. “One of them [Pineland Prairie] had a plan whereby there would be a lot of economic growth within the development.”
As far as her legal strategy in the upcoming court case – which is yet to be scheduled -- the senior assistant county attorney plans on debunking one of Mr. Eckert’s primary arguments: that Hobe Sound Ranch Ltd. has a right to a Comprehensive Plan amendment that would change the underlying zoning on the land and make the planned development possible.
“They’re saying they have a property right in that, and the county is saying ‘no we don’t have to legally amend the Comp Plan as it relates to your property,’” she added. “So, they would have to show that they have a right to that amendment, and how their not getting that amendment would deprive them of property rights.”
Ms. Holms is confident the county has legal standing in the case, which puts the burden of proof on the plaintiff.
“It’s purely a legal question of whether the Board’s denial to transmit the Comprehensive Plan Amendment is an action in and of itself a taking of property rights,” she explained. “It’s really a legal issue, and the devil’s in the details. Is somebody entitled to a Comp Plan amendment? They could say all the things they think that Martin County could have done… but at the end of the day, that’s the question.”
Martin County has resisted altering the agricultural zoning in the past for other proposed developments in the same area, with both residents, former commissioners and Town of Jupiter Island officials adamant about keeping the underlying zoning of one unit per 20 acres as a buffer against development coming from the south. In 2012, the then County Commission rejected a Palm Beach Gardens developer’s plans to build a 110-acre Extreme Sports Water Ski Park and Hotel at the intersection of I-95 and Bridge Road that would have provided dozens of new jobs to Hobe Sound-area residents and spurred new development in the area.