Saturday, April 02, 2016

Overstated Editorial on King's Grant Amicus Brief

Sadly, whenever the St. Augustine Record editorializes on legal issues, it's uninformed. This morning is no exception: it brags on the ability of a citizens' group to be able to file a brief, confusing brief-filing (amicus curiae or friend of the court status) with intervention (party status).

How sad for the Record's remaining readers to have such uninformed editorials, talking down to them, by editorialists who are utterly uninformed.

A state court judge reportedly "compromised' and allowed a citizen's group to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of St. Johns County -- essentially a right to file a brief, without party status or the ability to put on witnesses.

Intervention was oddly opposed by the dodgy, shadowy developer, represented by maladroit robot ELLEN AVERY-SMITH of the ROGERS TOWERS law factory, somewhat facetiously claiming that the estimable County Attorney PATRICK McCORMACK could speak adequately for the citizens. In reality, the County Attorney is likely to cut and run or settle at the earliest opportunity, and is much in need of ethics classes and a spinal implant.

An amicus curiae brief is the thermal equivalent of a letter to the editor directed to a court, and is no big deal.

The lawyer for the residents, Jane West, may have inflated the importance of the brief to her clients and the Record opinion editor -- it's not intervention. Amici have no rights to litigate or appeal, just to file a brief.

(In another case, intervention reportedly might be granted as the judge sees fit).

IN an editorial on Sunday, April 3, 2016, The St. Augustine Record writes as if this were landing on the moon, or as if Jane West had hung the moon. (Kindly recall her bungling of the DOW PUD/CORDOVA INN case and her outrageous anger, calling the cops after being criticized by me).

Conflating amicus curiae status with intervention and party status, the well-meaning Record editorial writer kvells, just a bit ahead of his skis:

Editorial: SACA decision bigger thatn it appears
Posted: April 3, 2016 - 12:06am

The Record ran a story Tuesday titled “Group can join defense in King’s Grant suit.” It was a court story, and a very technical one. But the bottom line was that a communities association was given the green light to join St. Johns County in a lawsuit brought by the developers.

The county is being sued because it denied the request for a Planned Unit Development on 772 acres near the intersection of State Road 206 and I-95. On its face, that was that.

But the approval by 7th Circuit Senior Judge Robert Rouse may, down the road, be seen as a pivotal moment in a seminal case, in terms of development in our county and, possibly, well beyond.

What’s at stake in the upcoming suit is an answer to this question: Who calls the shots on development in St. Johns County, developers or county commissioners? It will also likely answer some nagging questions about the legal effect of comprehensive plans. Are they general blueprints for future growth or binding contracts? More clearly, does a comprehensive plan actually convey “rights” to a developer?

The county is being sued on two fronts. One suit asks that the court overturn the county denial. This won’t mean that one or the other “wins.” It will simply decide if the county followed the rules in denying the plan. If it’s found that the county did not, it will be directed to try again.

The second seeks “declaratory, injunctive relief” from harm caused by the PUD denial. The developers say that the county’s comp plan specifically targets its land for residential and commercial growth. And it does. The plan was drawn up 25 years ago in an effort to plan ahead; to try to push growth into specific patterns. It was an attempt to sidestep random sprawl and willy-nilly subdivisions scattered across the county, where services might be difficult to plan for or to provide. Call it spontaneous combustion of haphazard development — and we’ve seen enough of it to know what it is — and what it does to the quality of life here.

What the judge decided this week allows the residents of the South Anastasia Communities Association status in the suit — actually two different levels of status on the two complaints. But the bottom line is that the judge said, yes, those residents most affected by the development have a right to help defend their neighborhoods.

The effect of it goes beyond that. SACA’s involvement helps ensure, let’s call it a “more robust” defense, by a county with a storied history of fickle politics in relation to growth.

The developers’ lawyer argued against SACA’s involvement in the suit, insisting that residents are adequately represented by their local government. (If you’re wondering, he was from this planet.) Inquiring minds might want to know why, then, did counsel for the developers argue so passionately against allowing the people to join the county? Answer? It will muddy their legal waters considerably.

A point that gets very lost in this issue it that the county has not denied King’s Grant permission to build. Developers can break ground tomorrow and build everything they are entitled to under existing zoning and land-use parameters. And that’s precisely what’s happening with the Ocean Ridge development that’s giving such a rash to Beach residents right now.

But Kings Grant wants more — 999 homes on 40-foot lots. Think that’s what comp plan architects saw coming?

This case is important. If the developers prevail it’s open season, with a gun-shy county reluctant to pull the trigger again in denying excessive expectations by developers. If the county prevails, it sends the clear — and correct — message that it is not the duty of the county to maximize developer profit. It’s to maximize a quality of life for those who elected them.

For two decades, our county has conformed to development. Is it time for the opposite to be true?

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