Appeals court slams ‘intransigent’ Palmetto Bay council

A South Miami-Dade village has lost in yet another attempt to stop a private school from expanding.

In a sharply-worded opinion published Thursday, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal said the village of Palmetto Bay acted either from “wishful thinking” or “more likely a willful disobedience” when the Village Council placed a 900-student limit on Palmer Trinity School after a lower court told the city, in effect, to allow up to 1,150 students.

The appellate court had previously said the school had no factual basis for the 900-student cap. Although local governments have wide powers to limit the use of private land in their jurisdictions, such decisions must be based on factual evidence. Such cases can be difficult for mayors and council members, because neighbors often oppose large new developments, but the elected leaders are supposed to consider only the facts, and to respect the property owners’ private-property rights.

Courts often give local officials considerable deference in these decisions, “but when a court has this strong an opinion, even with that deference, the municipality seems to have acted outside the scope of the law. This opinion is strongly worded,” said Brian Adler, an adjunct professor for the University of Miami’s law school and a land-use lawyer with the Bilzin Sumberg firm in Miami.

The appeals court’s decision appears to mean that Palmetto Bay must approve the school for 1,150 students.

“The special exception for 1,150 students should, therefore, have been summarily enforced by Palmetto Bay,” Chief Judge Linda Ann Wells wrote for the three-judge panel. She called Palmetto Bay “intransigent,” while in a concurring opinion, Senior Judge Alan Schwartz called the village’s recent appeals “an exercise in superfluousness and futility.”

Village Councilman Patrick Fiore, who along with Councilman Howard Tendrich voted against the appeal, said the council majority of Mayor Shelley Stanczyk, Vice Mayor Brian Pariser and Councilwoman Joan Lindsay had wasted the taxpayers’ money on fruitless litigation.

“Three members of this council, despite knowing what the village’s chances were of being successful in this appeal, decided to move ahead and continue to spend taxpayer dollars and, once again, the court has ruled in favor of the applicant,” Fiore said Friday.

The city hired White & Case, one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the United States, to work with City Attorney Eve Boutsis on the latest appeal.

Even before the latest appeal, the city’s legal bill on Palmer Trinity had come to $600,000.

So what’s the village next move?

“Right now, it’s hard to say,” Mayor Stanczyk said. Legally, the village could apply for a rehearing or ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

“We haven’t had an opportunity to meet with Eve and haven’t had a chance to meet with the manager,” Stanczyk said. The council is expected to meet Monday night at its next regular council meeting. “The five of us have to make that determination,” she said.

Over the years, despite prevailing over the village in court, Palmer Trinity had agreed to lower its enrollment request from 1,400 students over that same period of time to 1,150.

The fight first gained traction in 2006 when the school filed an application to rezone the 32.5-acre parcel it had purchased 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 and achieved a victory in 2010 when a Miami-Dade Circuit Court panel ordered the village to rehear and grant the zoning request.

The Circuit Court later ruled that Palmetto Bay’s 900 figure was not supported by competent substantial evidence, and the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed that decision.

Stan Price, who has represented Palmer Trinity through eight appellate appearances, including the two Third District rulings, isn’t sure that this clear decision ends the matter. The school still has a lawsuit pending against the city for tuition lost due to the village’s decisions.

“I feel very elated and very pleased with the court’s order. It has taken us six years to get to this point of time,” he said. “The most telling was that Chief Judge Wells basically came to the conclusion that the city was acting in bad faith and its actions belie someone wanting to do the right thing. Judge Schwartz concurred and indicated that everything the city was doing was superfluous. That’s what we’ve been saying all along. But there are a few individuals in this city who don’t want a school in that city and the court has recognized the school’s right to exist and to expand. We’d like to think every time we’ve come to the end of the road but there’s another stumbling block. Is this the end? With this town, you never know what the end is.”

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