Debating Rainbow River Ranch; judge wants more details
Published: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 7, 2014 at 11:22 p.m.
DUNNELLON — A judge says he doesn't want to rehash the battle that accompanied Dunnellon's long-running dispute over a plan to build hundreds of homes along the Rainbow River. But he still needs more details about the deal between the city and the developer before allowing the deal to go forward.
Without signaling which way he might go, Circuit Judge Steven Rogers indicated in a recent ruling that he needs more input, particularly from state officials who helped negotiate and approve a resolution, about how land-use changes for the Rainbow River Ranch protect the public interest.
He has asked lawyers for both sides to file additional documents pleading their respective cases, or to request a hearing to debate it in person.
A lawyer involved in the case said on Monday that they have opted for the former route, although the hearing could take place if the judge isn't satisfied with answers in the additional filings. Those are due before the end of the month.
However that goes, Rogers expressed clearly that he intends to avoid extending the litigation over the decade-old proposal.
"(T)he court rejects any attempt by the intervenors to turn the court's duty to review the settlement agreement into litigation of the claims being settled under the agreement," Rogers wrote of the project's opponents, including local homeowners and the group Rainbow River Conservation, or RRC, a watchdog organization critical of the venture for its potential effect on the health of the Rainbow River.
With the exception of the Canadian businessman Frank Stronach's Adena Springs cattle ranch, with its connection to Silver Springs, and Ocala developer Scott Siemens' 450-acre commerce park at Interstate 75 and County Road 318, within the county's Farmland Preservation Area, few current development projects compare to Minnesota developer Jerry Dodd's Rainbow River Ranch in ability to rally local environmentalists.
The group's advocacy of tighter environmental restrictions on the project fueled legal wrangling that eventually brought the case before Judge Rogers back in January.
Rogers' role became necessary because Dodd sought relief under the state's 1995 Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, which permits landowners to seek compensation if they believe government actions have unfairly denied them the use of their property.
Any deal that would remedy a Harris Act claim must be approved by a judge.
Dodd, who bought the 265-acre site in October 2004 for $7.5 million with a 450-home subdivision in mind, turned to the Harris Act in November 2009.
That came after the City Council adopted a one-year moratorium on future, large-scale growth in 2007, and followed that move a year later with an update to its comprehensive land-use plan, or comp plan.
Dodd argued that the comp plan changes, which barred some vegetation clearing along the river, targeted him and his effort to provide his buyers an unobstructed view of the Rainbow River.
The comp plan also slashed the number of single-family home lots inside Rainbow River Ranch from 450 to 25.
Dodd sued for $7.7 million in damages.
The City Council unexpectedly announced in March 2010 that it had struck a deal with Dodd. The settlement permitted the developer to build 349 homes and 100,000 square feet of commercial space, with provisions that could allow additional development under certain conditions.
City officials and Dodd believed that the deal was done. Yet the agreement prompted RRC, joined by 15 homeowners, to sue the city in April 2010.
Florida's then-Department of Community Affairs, or DCA, the agency charged with reviewing and endorsing local governments' comp plans, joined the action on the opponents' side two months later. The agency at one point had asserted the agreement violated Florida law and was inconsistent with the city's land use plan.
The city and Dodd reached another deal in September 2012 to settle the developer's Harris Act claim.
The pact enabled Dodd the same number of houses as the March 2010 arrangement, but he could add up to 50 extra homes, for a total of 399, provided he reduced the commercial portion by 2,000 square feet for each new dwelling.
Dodd also consented to establish a 100-foot-wide "protective buffer" along the river's edge.
RRC objected again. This time, the group maintained that Dodd would be permitted to build at least 30 homes in an area that had been set aside for conservation under an agreement that was in effect when he bought the property.
Moreover, RRC complained in a letter to the city that the developer would be allowed to clear-cut the property down to the 100-foot mark, and he had permission to install up to 24 new boat docks.
Judge Rogers allows that Dodd's lawyers were correct in saying he did not need to conduct a hearing under the law.
Still, there was no provision prohibiting such a hearing, Rogers noted, and he was opting against balancing Dodd's property rights with the overall public interest "while effectively blind."
Court documents did not demonstrate how the 2007 comp plan changes specifically affected Dodd's land, Rogers went on.
And he allowed that RRC had introduced "sufficient concerns" as to whether the settlement adequately protected the public interest.
Finally, Rogers observed the Department of Economic Opportunity, the agency that took over DCA's planning duties, was "noticeably silent" on that specific issue.
A DEO official was slated to appear at the January hearing but did not.
At that hearing, the city's attorney noted that DEO's ultimate written approval of the settlement indicated that the agency felt the public's interest was safeguarded.
Bryce Ackerman, an Ocala lawyer representing Dodd, said he believes Rogers was disappointed that DEO staffers were not present at the hearing, and that the judge did not feel comfortable moving forward without hearing a first-hand explanation.
Rogers' order, for instance, notes that DEO claimed in documents that it got involved in the case "to achieve the purposes" of a law that was repealed in 1973.
"I do believe the judge will approve the settlement at the end," Ackerman said, "but he could certainly disapprove this settlement and send everybody back to the drawing board."
Neither RRC President Burt Eno nor Ralf Brookes, a Cape Coral-based lawyer representing the group, could be reached for comment on Monday.
Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or email@example.com.