Mrachek Law Wins Equitable Estoppel Claim for Developer Against County

On February 28, 2016, Scott Konopka, manager of the Firm’s Stuart office, and Erica Sadowski, co-counsel, prevailed in a Petition for Writ of Certiorari involving a dispute over a 32-acre commercial development including the future site of a hotel at the interchange of I-95 and Southwest Martin Highway. In reliance on Martin County’s representations that the PUD timetable for development had been extended, our client purchased the property and expended an additional $510,000.00 preparing the project for development. At a quasi-judicial hearing before the Board of County Commissioners, the commission voted 3-2 to reject the project because of a purported violation of the deadlines.

The firm filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari alleging that the County was equitably estopped from enforcing the deadlines in the timetable for development due to exceptional circumstances. Equitable estoppel may be invoked against a government: Where a property owner (1) in good faith (2) upon some act or omission of the government (3) has made such a substantial change in position or has incurred such extensive obligations and expenses that it would be highly inequitable and unjust to destroy the right he acquired. Hollywood Beach Hotel Co. v. City of Hollywood, 329 So. 2d 10, 15-16 (Fla. 1976) (quoting Salkolsky v. City of Coral Gables, 151 So. 2d 433 (Fla. 1963)).

The doctrine of estoppel is based on the rules of fair play: “Stripped of the legal jargon which lawyers and judges have obfuscated it with, the theory of estoppel amounts to nothing more than an application of the rules of fair play. One party will not be permitted to invite another onto a welcome mat and then be permitted to snatch the mat away to the detriment of the party induced or permitted to stand thereon. A citizen is entitled to rely on the assurances and commitments of a zoning authority and if he does, the zoning authority is bound by its representations, whether they be in the form of words or deeds. . . .” Town of Largo v. Imperial Homes Corp., 309 So. 2d 571, 573 (Fla. 2d DCA 1975).

Although the doctrine of equitable estoppel will only be applied against the government under “exceptional circumstances,” State Dept. of Revenue v. Anderson, 403 So. 2d 397, 400 (Fla. 1981), the Court found that the exceptional circumstances test was met in this case based upon key admissions made by the County on cross examination and the number of repeated careless errors by the County. The firm established that the Growth Management Director was not required to acknowledge the owner’s request for a timetable extension, nor was she required to provide a specific deadline timetable, but she chose to do so, and therefore, became obligated to respond with reasonable care. Tri-State Systems, Inc. v. Department of Transp., 500 So. 2d 212, 216 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986).

In response, the County argued that the deadline applied and that the County’s Land Development Regulations required the deadline to be enforced, whether or not a mistake was made by the County in calculating the deadline. The County also attempted to shift the blame to the property owner for the mistake. The court rejected this stratagem, and held, “The [owner] has acted in good faith and did its due diligence prior to purchasing the property. After purchase, it complied with every step of the County’s procedures. The County led them to believe that they were in compliance for four years…The County invited the [owner] to stand on the welcome mat for four years before attempting to snatch it away.”

As in many lawsuits, the rules of law are based upon fair play. We focused on the fundamental unfairness of the County’s conduct, its obvious disregard for the owners’ property rights, and its brazen carelessness in granting then denying extensions of time.
Sadowski stated, “we were undaunted by the difficult standard applied to these types of cases, because we knew that our client had done everything in its power to research the property and to comply with the county’s deadlines.” Konopka added, “The County could have and should have resolved this case sooner, but through hard work and preparation, justice prevailed.”

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