Court backs Jacksonville in property rights battle


300-crowdedIn a property-rights case that could ultimately go to the Florida Supreme Court, a divided appeals court ruled Thursday that Jacksonville does not have to compensate owners of a riverfront lot who say construction of a fire station caused the lot’s value to plummet.

The 1st District Court of Appeal split 9-5 in the case, which focused on whether compensation was owed to the property owners, R. Lee Smith and Christy Smith, under a state law known as the Bert J. Harris, Jr., Private Property Rights Protection Act.

That law says, in part, property owners are entitled to relief, which can include compensation for lost value, when government agencies have taken actions that “inordinately burdened” a use of property.

After the Smiths bought the undeveloped riverfront lot in 2005, Jacksonville rezoned an adjacent parcel and ultimately built a 13,000-square-foot fire station, according to Thursday’s ruling. The Smiths filed a lawsuit, arguing that the fire station made their property unmarketable as a luxury home site and that the value had gone down $470,000.

A Duval County circuit judge sided with the property owners, but the appeals court overturned that decision.

Thursday’s majority opinion, written by Judge James Wolf, said the circuit judge’s decision “broadens the scope of the Harris Act far beyond its intended purpose and has the potential to open the floodgates for claims under the act against state, regional, and local governmental entities.”

But two dissenting opinions pointed to issues such as the city’s rezoning of the fire-station property without providing notice to the Smiths. “There is no question that appellant’s (the city’s) regulatory action of rezoning the property without notice to appellees (the Smiths) and, more importantly, constructing the massive fire station on the rezoned property unfairly affected appellees’ adjoining real property by decimating its value,” said one of the dissents, written by Judge Ronald Swanson.

While the majority ruled in favor of Jacksonville, it also took a step, known as certifying a question of “great public importance”, to urge the Supreme Court to take up the case.