Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Local Government's Longstanding Land Development Code Interpretation Cannot Trump Code's Unambiguous Language

The 2d DCA recently held that a local government's longstanding interpretation of its land development code cannot trump the code's unambiguous language. In Longboat Key v. Islandside Prop. Owners Coal., LLC, - So. 3d -, 37 Fla. L. Weekly D2058 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012), the Town approved a $400 million redevelopment plan for the Longboat Key Club. Several community organizations asked the circuit court to review the Town's decision. The circuit court found that the Town violated multiple provisions of its land development code in approving the redevelopment plan. Consequently, it struck down the Town's ordinance approving the plan.

Upon reviewing the case, the 2d DCA agreed with the circuit court. (In legalese, the circuit court granted a writ of certiorari and quashed the ordinance; the 2d DCA denied a second-tier writ of certiorari.) Because of the court's strongly worded opinion, Town officials are getting a lot of grief over their approval of the redevelopment plan and their subsequent litigation over it. The 2d DCA discussed the local government's failure to follow its own rules:

The Town argues that the Code is ambiguous, thus requiring the circuit court to defer to the Town's reasonable interpretation. See Fla. Hosp. v. Agency for Health Care Admin., 823 So.2d 844, 848 (Fla. 1st DCA 2002) (holding that an agency's interpretation is afforded deference by the court unless the plain language of the ordinance runs contrary to the agency's interpretation). In support of this argument, the Town cites its longstanding tradition allowing similar nonresidential developments. Vanderbilt Shores Condominium Association v. Collier County, 891 So.2d 583, 584 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004), blunts that attack. Tradition cannot displace the plain meaning of a local code.
The Town's longstanding interpretation of its Code cannot tie the circuit court's hands. To allow such a result would countenance a shifting-sands approach to Code construction that would deny meaningful judicial review of local quasi-judicial decisions. The meaning of a code would remain in flux. Such an approach does not promote consistency in the application of law. As the wording of its laws binds a legislature, the Town is bound by the wording of its Code. This mounts a bulwark against the Town's unfettered exercise of power. See Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Brevard Cnty. v. Snyder, 627 So.2d 469, 474 (Fla.1993) (noting that local governments and agencies must strictly adhere to town development plans and zoning codes); City of Miami v. Rosen, 151 Fla. 677, 10 So.2d 307, 309 (1942) (discussing the limited scope of authority under which municipal ordinances are valid); Ocean's Edge Dev. Corp. v. Town of Juno Beach, 430 So.2d 472, 474–75 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983) (determining that courts cannot amend local ordinances “as the town would have liked it to read” by ignoring the language of the code “in favor of after-the-fact expert testimony as to legislative intent to fill in the cracks” because property owners and residents have every right to depend on the wording of the code.) As the circuit court noted, the Town is free to amend the Code. See Carroll v. City of Miami Beach, 198 So.2d 643, 645 (Fla. 3d DCA 1967) (“[T]he City is bound by the express terms of its own ordinance.... If the City desires a different meaning for its ordinance in the future, it may amend, modify, or change the same by legislative process.”).
The 2d DCA's message is clear: local governments must follow their own rules in their land development codes. If they do not like them, they can legislatively amend the rules. They cannot, however, simply interpret clear rules unreasonably. If the rules are unclear (or become unclear when a new situation arises), then local governments can interpret their rules to address the uncertainty.