An appeals court Friday overturned the approval of a settlement agreement in a Marion County development dispute and ordered a circuit judge to take further steps to ensure that the deal protects the “public interest.”
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 5th District Court of Appeal involved an agreement between property owners Rainbow River Ranch LLC and Conservation Land Group LLC, the city of Dunnellon and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
The case centers on two contiguous pieces of property in Dunnellon that are along the Rainbow River and adjacent to Rainbow Springs State Park, according to the ruling. The owners bought the property in 2004, but the city in 2007 changed its comprehensive land-use plan in a way that the owners said would further restrict their use of the property. That led the owners to file a claim under a state law known as the “Bert J. Harris, Jr., Private Property Rights Protection Act,” which can force government agencies to compensate property owners when new regulations affect the use of land. A settlement agreement was later reached that would allow development exceeding what was included in the Dunnellon comprehensive plan, according to Friday’s ruling.
Rainbow River Conservation, Inc., and other plaintiffs challenged the settlement, which was approved by a Marion County circuit judge. The appeals-court panel overturned that approval and ordered more-extensive consideration of the settlement agreement.
“In our view, the circuit court could not have ensured protection of the public interest in active participation in the planning process without some mechanism that allowed robust public input,” said the eight-page ruling, written by appeals-court Chief Judge C. Alan Lawson and joined by judges William Palmer and F. Rand Wallis.
“Given the broad powers granted to the circuit court in the Bert Harris Act, the court could have ordered the city to hold public hearings, and then considered the comments from those proceedings. Further, where the public has intervened and contests whether the settlement agreement even meets the statutory requirements for approval, it would seem to be difficult, if not impossible, for the circuit court to ensure satisfaction of the public interest in public participation without hearing directly from the intervenors and considering their evidence.”