Anti-sprawl activists in Florida won the war, but lost the battle. Attorney Ralf Brookes of Cape Coral, Florida, reports that residents in Spring Hill, Florida won their two year court battle against Wal-Mart in January of 2004, but because the retailer was building while the case was in court, the superstore will not be torn down even though it was illegally built. The citizens’ group, Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl and the Environment (CAUSE), won a victory against Hernando County when the 5th District Court of Appeals upheld a circuit court’s finding that the County violated Florida’s Sunshine Law by meeting in private with Wal-Mart representatives during staff meetings of the Development Review Committee (DRC) and excluding CAUSE and the public from these meetings. The court awarded CAUSE attorney’s fees for vindicating the citizen’s rights under the sunshine law. The court however refused to require that Wal-Mart be torn down despite the violations. By the time the case made it to the appellate court, the Super WalMart was already constructed and open for business. Hernando County agreed to pay CAUSE’s legal fees. The group could have tried to get a temporary injunction before the store was built, but Florida law requires posting of a bond if an injunction is awarded, which is cost-prohibitive for a citizen’s group. So while the lawsuit played out, Wal-Mart built their store. Brookes reports in a second case in Hernando County, CAUSE filed a lawsuit against a developer of the so-called Hardy Huntly site on the grounds that the proposed mall, which has no announced tenants or buyers, was inconsistent with the county’s Comprehensive land use Plan. A circuit court ruled that CAUSE had no standing to bring their case, so the residents appealed that decision to the Fifth District Court of Appeals two weeks ago. CAUSE is seeking to enforce the comprehensive plan policies protecting Florida Black Bear from habitat loss and to contest the commercial rezoning of land designated for public use on the land use plan. Brookes is involved also in a third case in Pasco County, Florida filed last month, against Cypress Creek Town Center, a 1.5 million s.f. mega-mall and 690,000 sf of highway retail. The neighbors filed a petition seeking review of violations of the Pasco County Land Development Code, which states that only water dependent uses may be placed in wetlands. A mega-mall is not a water-dependent use, but this mall will obliterate over 57 acres of wetlands on Cypress Creek, a drinking water source for City of Tampa to the South. It is also in the 100 year floodplain of the Cypress Creek.
Before the CAUSE victory in court, for about 18 years, the public was not allowed to attend Development Review Committee (DRC) meetings. These DRC meeting were important discussions between developers and county building officials. When the state appeals judge affirmed the circuit court decision that the DRC should be open to the public, CAUSE claimed an important victory. “It proved that we were right all along,” said CAUSE founder Arline Erdrich. “We said that they were operating out of the sunshine illegally and unconstitutionally and that’s exactly what the judge upheld.” So the county got away with approving a supercenter in Spring Hill without allowing the public to attend the DRC meetings. The Hernando County commissioners claimed the DRC was merely a fact-finding entity incapable of making decisions and did not have to include the public. After the court ruling, the county cancelled all formal DRC meetings, forcing developers to meet with officials one office at a time, removing the DRC from the Sunshine law. As it stands now,
citizens in Spring Hill have no recourse for input. “Right now, the public has no place to speak,” Brooks said. “They’re completely shut out of the system.” For earlier stories on this topic, search Newsflash by “Spring Hill.” To reach Ralph Brookes, go to www.RalfBrookesAttorney.com