Sunday, October 14, 2012

Great Journalism Highlights a Shocking Florida Takings Tale

It's not often that you see good journalism about takings or property rights. Earlier this year, however, the East Central Floridian View published an excellent story on a property rights case that has crushed the small town of Ponce Inlet, Florida. In fact, I can't recall ever having seen a such a good behind-the-scenes look at the ordeal landowners face when their property is taken by the government (or the resulting chagrin of taxpayers).

The Floridian View describes the case of Lyder and Simone Johnson, the landowners Pacetta, LLC v. Ponce Inlet, Case. No. 2010-31696-CICI (Fla. 7th Cir. Apr. 20, 2012). This is the third and best article in a series of articles about the Johnson's plight, Ponce Inlet's potential insolvency, and the astronomical legal bills involved.
Having received what is being hailed as one of the most important judicial rulings in the State of Florida, the Johnsons and representatives of the Town of Ponce Inlet begin closed-door settlement negotiations as impassioned cries for the ousting of elected officials and public legal counsel are heard in meetings throughout the municipality. 
The stark reality of Circuit Judge William A. Parsons ruling is sinking in around town. Tensions are running high and implicated people are running away. Conspiracy theories, violated constitutional rights and illegal activity are being uncovered in a town where litigation and intimidation have a long history. Just as the iconic Ponce Inlet Lighthouse stands as a physical symbol of the strength of the community, this case of Pacetta LLC v. The Town of Ponce Inlet will stand as a monumental reference in case law for decades to come. 
Historically, judicial rulings don’t normally constitute compelling reading, but the document set forth by Parsons is a masterful work. In it, he articulates with an incredible understanding of the law, the story of an almost decade long struggle in the inlet. He sets the stage for the case and his findings, never shying away from assigning blame directly on the shoulders of an apparently conspiring town council. “It is a skillfully written, in-depth ruling,” says 23-year Ponce Inlet resident and business owner, Michael O’Shaughnessy. “It is an amazing piece of work; my hat’s off to Parsons.” Few who have read it come to a different conclusion.
And the Floridian View is right. Maybe the only thing more surprising than good takings journalism would be an accessible, readable takings order from a trial court judge. The Johnsons got it. Following a twelve day nonjury trial, Judge Parsons delivered a sixty-plus page order finding that Ponce Inlet took the Johnson's property without compensation. Judge Parsons also found that, alternatively, the Johnsons deserved compensation under the Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, which offers statutory protections to Florida landowners even beyond Constitutional protections.

The article and the order present a shocking tale of public corruption, shoddy local government lawyering, and bitter neighbors. The local government was run by elected officials who had gotten elected in order to persecute the Johnsons. The court even indicates that local government officials convinced a land use planner to fabricate data, and a neighbor made unfounded complaints to get the Johnsons fined.

It becomes apparent that the as much as the Johnsons are victims of a local government turned into a machine for personal vendettas, the citizens are also victims. They will suffer enormously in compensating the Johnsons. Unless it is able to settle the case, Ponce Inlet could go bankrupt, as the damages that the jury will determine could be as high as $60 million. The Floridian View paints a picture of the sad outcomes in this case:
In this beautiful coastal town, there is a colorful history of pirating, white-collar drug running and intimidation through litigation. Left to their own demise, power playing realtors, elected officials, ill-informed legal counselors and self interested parties have reduced one of Volusia County’s most spectacular assets to a legal footnote that will forever be used to prove cases across the state. The implications of this ruling are not to be taken lightly and the assertion by Judge Parsons that those with potential criminal violations will be prosecuted should serve as a warning to those already putting for sale signs in front of their homes and loading up the yacht.
Resignations should occur, prosecutions will be carried out and while tax payers may end up carrying much of the burden, we are confident that the Johnsons understand what this means for every tax payer in the community. It is expected that above all, they will continue the “exercise of inexhaustible good faith,” as claimed by Parsons through out the process. When asked whether or not the property will ever become what they envisioned, Simone Johnson replied, “I don’t know that this dream will ever happen.” 
While a long road remains ahead, for the Johnsons a chapter is closing and the healing can begin for the entire town. As how to best accomplish that, we recommend starting with dinner at Down the Hatch [the Johnson's restaurant on the property].
The trial court's docket shows that the jury trial will take be in early December. The Fifth DCA's docket shows that some parts of Judge Parson's order were appealed. I'll continue to watch this case to provide updates.