If you own a parcel of property and intend to develop it, it is highly likely that you will find yourself at a hearing before a governmental entity at some point to deal with issues that will invariably arise relating to that property. For example, if the development you envision for your property does not comport with the preexisting zoning on the property, you may have to go to the city or county commission and request that the property be rezoned. Depending on the neighborhood surrounding the property and what you propose to develop, this request could garner significant opposition from certain members of the community, which could dramatically alter the landscape of the hearing. The Fifth District Court of Appeal, which governs Orange and Seminole County, among others, recently handed down a decision, however, that lessens the potential for such opposition to derail the hearing.
In Carillon Community Residential Association, et al. v. Seminole County, Florida, et al., certain members of the community challenged the county commission’s refusal to allow them to cross-examine witnesses during a rezoning hearing. The community members contended that such refusal denied them of their right to due process because they could be adversely impacted if the rezoning application was granted. In deciding whether the community members were deprived of their right to due process – which is the principle that requires that proceedings be fundamentally fair – the Court initially noted that hearings before governmental agencies such as a county commission are “quasi-judicial.” As such, they are not controlled by the strict rules of evidence and procedure that govern traditional lawsuits. Despite this less stringent atmosphere, however, the principles of due process still require that quasi-judicial proceedings be “essentially fair.”
In further examining what exactly due process requires in the context of quasi-judicial proceedings, the Fifth DCA recognized that it was important to distinguish between the actual parties to the hearing, which would include the applicant and the government agency, and those who were merely participating in the hearing, such as the members of the community. The Court recognized that due process required that “parties” to quasijudicial proceedings have the right to present evidence, cross-examine witnesses and generally be informed of all the facts that form the basis of the government action.
The Court then examined what due process rights “participants” have in quasi-judicial proceedings. The Court held that depending on the type of proceeding involved and the nature of the interest that will be affected, “participants” are entitled to some measure of due process. The Court held, though, that “participants” are not entitled to cross-examine witnesses. In making this finding, the Court explicitly rejected the community members’ claim that due process requires that adjoining landowners have the right to cross-examine witnesses during a rezoning hearing. It observed that allowing all participants the right to cross-examine witnesses in this context could create “a cumbersome, unwieldy procedural nightmare for local government bodies.” In fact, it could be the classic “zoo!”
By finding that only “parties” have the due process right to cross-examine witnesses during “quasi-judicial” hearings, the Fifth DCA has significantly lessened the potential for a hearing before a governmental entity to turn into a circus, which will benefit both the owner/developer of the property and the local government tasked with making the decision.