A suburban South Miami-Dade village has abandoned its six-year fight to limit a private school’s expansion plans in a residential neighborhood.
But now Palmetto Bay leaders must decide what to do about a court order commanding them to pay the school’s attorneys’ fees, which could total hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Third District Court of Appeal issued the unusual order July 5 after finding that the village had acted either from "wishful thinking" or "more likely a willful disobedience" to previous judicial instructions.
Also still unresolved is Palmer Trinity’s separate lawsuit seeking up to $13 million in lost tuition and other costs created by the village’s decisions.
The case highlights what can happen when a town council must weigh the desires of the people who elected them against constitutionally protected private-property rights.
After meeting with council members behind closed doors last week, Village Attorney Eve Boutsis announced Wednesday night that her client had decided not to appeal the District Court’s order that the school be allowed to expand from 600 to 1,150 students. The Village Council had tried to limit the school to 900 children, but the judges had previously stated that this restriction was unsupported by evidence.
“There will not be an appeal or reconsideration of the July 5 court decision,” Boutsis told the crowd of about 50 people at Village Hall. The case is the biggest political issue the village has encountered since it incorporated in 2002, and more than 600 people had shown up for the council’s public hearings on the matter.
“Palmer Trinity is pleased that the Village Council has finally accepted the ruling of the Third District Court of Appeal. We hope that the Village Council is sincere in the statements made on Tuesday night. As always, Palmer Trinity is focused on the education of our students. We look forward to moving ahead,” said Head of School, Sean Murphy, in a statement.
The case has cost the village more than $600,000 in legal expenses since 2006, and divided the community. Recently, a group of residents started a recall movement against Mayor Shelley Stanczyk and two members of the council, Joan Lindsay and Brian Pariser, for allowing the litigation to linger for so long.
The next move will require the village to hold a public zoning meeting to vote on the school’s request. The hearing is expected for late August so that staff can properly advertise the meeting, Boutsis said, and it’s likely the school’s requested 1,150 figure will prevail.
“I really don’t think they had too much alternative,” said the school’s attorney, Stanley Price. “Rehearing would have further annoyed the courts, which have to rule on attorney’s fees and costs.”
He said those fees could total about $350,000.
Boutsis called for another closed-door meeting with the council next week to discuss the attorneys’ fees.
In addition, a civil rights case is still pending against the village, asking for the millions in lost tuition income.
“We’re going to file a series of summary judgment motions on the strong points of law,” Price said, assuming a judge rejects the city’s efforts to dismiss the case. The judge’s decision is expected within the next month.