Can Local Governments Be Held Accountable to Their Own Policies?

Grace Place Outside 2

I wrote an extended series in May 2021 explaining how these massive developments would violate many aspects of the county’s own codes and long-range plans. Collier County requires “fiscal neutrality”: New development is supposed to pay its own way and not create a net fiscal burden on existing taxpayers. The three new villages fail that test by any reasonable measure. Collier County also has requirements stipulating “compact” growth, “walkability,” and mixed-use “town centers” in new master-planned communities. The plans for Rivergrass and the other two villages make a mockery of those requirements, stretching the plain-English meaning of those words to Orwellian lengths.

Nonetheless, as of my writing, the first of the three villages, Rivergrass, had already been approved by the County Commission in spite of the proposal’s clear defects, and I predicted that the other two communities would also be approved. In early June, they were. All along, county staff and officials showed every sign of being willing to violate the clear language and intent of their own rules in order to approve the projects.

For this reason, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental conservation organization, sued Collier County in 2020 to overturn the approval of Rivergrass. The Conservancy lost its initial case on an unusual technicality: The judge ruled that in Florida, citizen-led challenges to development orders can only deal narrowly with the use or density of planned development. Thus, adherence to fiscal neutrality or urban design requirements, although also present in the county’s code, was off limits, and evidence related to them could not be presented.

The Conservancy has appealed this ruling to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal. Strong Towns is one of thirteen civic and environmental organizations to submit an amicus brief in support of the Conservancy’s challenge to Rivergrass. (This does not make us a party to the lawsuit—an amicus brief is a statement of support by a third-party expert intended to help the court evaluate the significance or context of the issues at stake.)

April Olson, Senior Environmental Planning Specialist for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, stated, “The Conservancy is optimistic, and we strongly believe that we will win the Rivergrass appeal because Florida’s Community Planning Act, which relies on citizens to enforce comprehensive plans, clearly states that the entire comprehensive plan matters, not just bits and pieces of the plan.”

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