This week, Pacific Legal Foundation asked the Florida Supreme Court to right a constitutional wrong in a case known as Pacetta, LLC v. Town of Ponce Inlet. Pacetta, and its principal Lyder Johnson and his wife Simone, know firsthand why property owners need protection against government power. Their story is different in the details from the Koontz family story, or the Beyer family story, but ultimately the stories all come down to the same basic point: government officials in the state of Florida do not respect private property rights in the way the Constitution intends. Here, the jury verdict Pacetta recovered in the amount of approximately $30 million dollars against the Town of Ponce Inlet for the Town’s unconstitutional conduct was taken away by an intermediate appellate court. PLF has now stepped in on their behalf, just as it did for the Koontzes and Beyers.
My colleague Christina Martin recounted the Pacetta story in an earlier blogpost, which I paraphrase here:
The Johnsons’ saga started in 2004 after they purchased six acres of property through their business, Pacetta, LLC, in hopes of building a small residential development. The town’s planners and council loved the idea so much that in 2005, they invited the Johnsons to expand their idea and help develop a larger sixteen acre waterfront area. They all agreed that the larger development would only be feasible if the Johnsons purchased the rest of the land. Relying on town promises that their development would be approved and the town’s comprehensive land-use plan appropriately altered, the Johnsons purchased the remaining acres.
Over the course of 2005, 2006, and 2007, the Town made many more assurances to the Johnsons. For example, the council adopted ordinances that laid the foundation for the necessary land-use changes. It also issued permits for the early stages of the development, including a planned 900 foot seawall and utilities for a planned marina.
Unfortunately, local political forces unconstitutionally obstructed the plan. In 2007, the council passed the first of many moratoriums on the project. In 2008 and 2009, it passed ordinances singling out the Johnsons’ land and destroying any economically feasible use of most of the property. The Johnsons sued.
The trial judge found the town liable under state law for taking away their property’s value, but then the appellate court reversed that decision. The trial judge then found the town liable under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, and a jury returned that $30 million dollar verdict I mentioned. Yet the same appellate court that took away the first decision took away that jury verdict, too. The appellate court did not just take away the verdict and remand for another trial. It went further, and instructed the lower court to review whether the Johnsons even had the right to sue the government at all.
We find that result abhorrent; thus, when the family asked us to take their case on, we were glad to say “yes!” Our donors expect us to do nothing less. When a local government induces you to invest a lifetime’s worth of treasure into a plan the government does all but officially approve, that town should not be able to simply renege on the deal without consequence to the town. Between two private parties we would call that breach of contract. Here, we call it a breach of the Fifth Amendment.