The Bennetts own a beachfront triplex and adjacent lot known as “The Lawn” in south Walton County that they rent many times each year for weddings, graduation parties, reunions, and other events. Their property sits within a county-designated “Residential Preservation Area” district surrounded by family dwellings. In 2010, Bennetts’ neighbors began to complain to the County about events held on the Lawn after about 30 wedding event rentals had occurred in 2009 and more were being held in 2010. The County responded by citing the Bennetts three times between February 2010 and April 2011, for making “non-residential use” of their property in violation of Walton County’s Land Development Code (LDC). In response, the Bennetts sued the County, alleging, among other things, that the County’s ambiguous restriction and arbitrary enforcement violated their substantive due process rights. After the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on the claim, the trial court ruled for the County, and the Bennetts appealed.
The Bennetts didn’t challenge the constitutionality this sort of zoning classification per se, but only that the LDC’s parameter prohibiting “non-residential uses” was too ambiguous to ever be constitutionally applied. However, the court found that the “non-residential uses” prohibition was not unconstitutional on its face because contexts exist where it “conveys a sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured by common understanding and practice.” The court next addressed whether the LDC’s prohibition on “non-residential uses” conveyed a sufficiently definite warning as applied to the Bennetts’ particular use of the Lawn. The court held that the rate and scope of the Lawn’s rental usage—up to 30 weddings per year on the Bennetts’ lot—wasn’t typical residential usage as measured by common practice. Accordingly, the LDC’s “non-residential uses” restriction conveyed a clear and sufficient standard as applied to the Bennetts’ usage.
The Bennetts’ final argument was that the County’s enforcement was unconstitutionally ad hoc and illegitimate. Even though the County did not provide an exact number of weddings the lot could legally host, the County’s response made it clear the Bennetts’ use was clearly prohibited and reflected the zoning enforcement expectations of the Bennetts’ neighbors, who complained about all the events and also didn’t think that the lot could play host to so many weddings each year. The County’s enforcement was therefore not unlawfully arbitrary, and the holding of the trial court was affirmed in favor or the County.
Bennett v Walton County, 2015 WL 3824197 (FL App. 1 Dist. 6/22/2015)
The opinion can be accessed at: http://opinions.1dca.org/pc_pdf/14-1305.pdf