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.
Council members who have been on both sides of the issue sounded conciliatory on Wednesday.
“I would hope that we can put this to rest and move this city forward after the Third District Court ruled against the village and that the village has to pay attorney’s fees,” said Councilmember Pat Fiore, who, along with colleague Howard Tendrich, has opposed recent appeals. “We need to move this town forward, get over this, get the development order done, and hope we can negotiate out of this so it doesn’t get any worse and we can move this city forward in a progressive manner.”
Mayor Stanczyk agreed.
“I share that sentiment as well,” she said. “I see the time has come for us all to come together as friends and neighbors, as we’ve been in the past. This has been a divisive issue. We want to be friends and neighbors and move forward in a positive way.”
Tendrich, however, wondered why the appeals court ordered only the village to pay the school’s attorneys’ fees.
“The village was not the only one involved in the law suit,” he said. “Concerned Citizens of Old Cutler, Inc. were member of that lawsuit. Why were we picked and they weren’t?”
Boutsis said she had no answer. Price said this was the court’s sole decision.
“The CCOCI were the main group pushing this thing, creating legal strategy for their compatriots on the council, but the court on its own elected to impose this on the village,” Price said.
“Palmer Trinity School has always been committed to, and has many times over the years, tried to resolve these issues with the village and with CCOCI. This is evident by our revised variance-free plan,” said Chairman of the Board, Joseph J. Kalbac, Jr. in a statement. “It is time that the village and CCOCI seriously attempt to settle the pending claims for costs, attorney’s fees and other damages. We hope all involved can avoid further expensive litigation and finally put this behind us.”
The fight first solidified in 2006 when the school filed an application to rezone the 32.5-acre parcel it had purchased in 2003 and sought a special exception to increase the student enrollment from 600 to 1,400. The village denied the rezoning request in 2008. Palmer Trinity modified its site plan and enrollment request to 1,150 and achieved a victory when a Miami-Dade Circuit Court panel ordered the village council to rehear and grant the request.
That council, led by former mayor Eugene Flinn, voted to limit the school to 900 students when then-councilmember Stanczyk suggested the figure after public comment. The Circuit Court later ruled that Palmetto Bay’s 900 number was not supported by competent substantial evidence, and the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed that decision.
Despite the council’s public statements this week, Price said Thursday that the school is serious about recovering the money it lost because of the village’s decisions.
“They think we’re nice neighbors, and we’ll all be fine neighbors, and we’ll go on with our lives, but too much has been invested,” he said. “It’s a sad thing for people in that village, but they are going to pay for it. I don’t mean that in a vindictive way. But the client wants to be made whole.”
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