APA Florida, Communities Win in Court Ruling of Critical Comprehensive Plan Consistency Challenge

By Nancy Stroud, FAICP, Esq.

 The Florida First District Court of Appeal has handed down an important decision reaffirming the statutory mandate that all development orders be consistent with the local comprehensive plan – all of the plan, not just comprehensive plan provisions related to use, density and intensity. The mandate is a hallmark of the Community Planning Act and its antecedent legislation dating back to the 1970s, and especially as strengthened by the 1985 growth management legislation in the Local Government Comprehensive Planning and Land Development Regulations Act.

In the case of Imhof v. Walton County, decided September 15, the court disagreed with the Second District Court of Appeal, which had issued a surprising 2017 decision (Heine v. Lee County) holding that consistency mandate is limited to only use, density and intensity inconsistencies. The APA Florida chapter, along with national APA, filed a “friend of the court” amicus brief in support of the broader consistency mandate.

The APA did not take a position on the merits of the PUD or the consistency claims. Instead, the APA addressed the importance of the consistency mandate, and its enforcement by aggrieved and adversely affected persons, to ensure that the local government’s comprehensive plan continues to be an effective primary foundation for local land development decisions, providing predictability for public and private investments in the community and the polestar for local implementing regulations. It argued that a narrow interpretation of the mandate, as adopted in Heine, is contrary to the planning statute, and inconsistent with court precedent dating back decades.

The Imhof decision involved a plan consistency challenge by two individuals and two nonprofit environmental organizations to a Walton County Planned Unit Development approval known as Cypress Lake. The mixed-use PUD would abut County Highway 30-A on one side, and Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, a conservation area, on at least one other. The challengers advocated that the PUD was inconsistent with multiple comprehensive plan policies, including density and intensity, buffers, setbacks and sidewalk plan objectives and policies. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing, but ultimately decided that only the density and intensity consistency challenge was allowed under the statute, and further that the density and intensity was not inconsistent with the plan, dismissing the other challenges. The trial court also held that the challenger South Walton Community Council, Inc. did not have standing to sue because it was not a sufficiently “aggrieved or adversely affected party” under the statute. The court awarded attorneys’ fees and costs to the developer as the prevailing party.

The unanimous District Court of Appeal overturned the trial court in an extensive discussion of the consistency mandate, including a detailed grammatical analysis of the statutory language. It determined that the statute is “designed to ensure the complete consistency between development and a local comprehensive plan.” It also found that the South Walton Community Council has standing under the intentionally liberalized criteria of the statute and the SWCC history and purpose as a growth management and environmental watchdog group. It reversed the attorneys’ fees and costs and remanded the case to the trial court to decide the remaining inconsistency claims.

In issuing its decision, the court also certified to the Florida Supreme Court that there is a conflict between the Courts of Appeal on this issue. The certification alerts the Supreme Court so that it can, but is not required to, accept a request by the losing party to take up the issue and resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, the outlier Heine decision applies in 14 southwest counties: Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Highlands, Hardee, Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto, Hillsborough, Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Hendry and Glades.

Imhof is a critical validation of the consistency mandate of the Community Planning Act, and the importance of citizen standing to enforce that mandate. APA and the APA Florida Chapter once again have done their part to advocate successfully for effective comprehensive plan consistency in Florida.

Nancy Stroud, FAICP, Esq., is the owner of Nancy E. Stroud, P.A. She can be reached at nstroud@nstroudpa.com