Walton County faces another lawsuit

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Yet another lawsuit has been brought against Walton County Commissioners — bringing the total to four in the past month.

By Debbie Wheeler

Yet another lawsuit has been brought against Walton County Commissioners — bringing the total to four in the past month.

District 2 Commissioner Cecilia Jones and County Attorney Sidney Noyes were served with a Petition for Writ of Certiorari last week, filed in the First Judicial Circuit Court for Walton County.

The suit was brought by the Historic Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association over the BCC’s approval last month of construction of Summer House Bed & Breakfast in Inlet Beach.

The proposed B&B brought much protest from potential neighbors who believe it does not fit in with surrounding homes, and the fact that the State Statutes defines a bed and breakfast as an establishment not having more than 15 guest rooms. Summer House will have 25.

The suit states that procedural due process was not given by the Board in approving the project and in rendering the final order. The suit alleges that two Commissioners — Jones and District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson — voted to approve and failed to disclose ex parte communications before doing so.

Jones and Anderson denied the allegation they failed to disclose ex-parte communications in an email sent from Walton spokesman Louis Svehla.

“That allegation is false,” the email said. “All ex-parte communications were disclosed.”

Svehla provided documents signed by Anderson and Jones acknowledging ex parte communcations and also, upon request, produced numerous emails sent to them — all seemingly in opposition to the development — prior to the vote in favor of developing the bed and breakfast.

In addition, the lawsuit said, the Board failed to conduct a quasi-judicial hearing to allow the Neighborhood Association and other participants the opportunity to present evidence, which was a departure from the essential requirements of law.

Due to these violations, IBNA is asking that the approval be nullified and a new hearing before the Board be held with all due process.

The applicant for Summer House is Rita Bottems. She applied for approval of the proposed 25-unit B&B consisting of three stories and 13,130 square feet.

The application was initially heard on June 21, 2016 with four of five Commissioners present. At that time the project was denied with a 2-2 vote on the advice of then County Attorney Mark Davis. The applicant appealed and the court ruled that a tie vote should result in approval not denial.

The project was re-heard Oct. 5, 2017 with five Commissioners seated, including two new ones, resulting in three of the five not being present at the original hearing.

At this quasi-judicial hearing, County Attorney Sidney Noyes led Commissioners in a “continuation” hearing instead of a ne novo hearing despite three of the five not being present the first time.

In this continuation hearing, Noyes showed the video of the first hearing, prohibited and did not accept any new evidence, and did not allow Commissioners to ask questions except based on the video and the original packet of information from 2016.

When a vote was taken, it was 3-2 to allow the project.

The suit states the hearing was not conducted pursuant to the requirements of the Land Development Code.

Noyes did not respond to an email seeking comment on the way the meeting was conducted.

The Circuit Court is being asked to determine whether procedural due process was afforded, the essential requirements of the law were observed, and whether the decision is supported by competent substantial evidence. And, the court is being asked to nullify the BCC’s final order of approval for Summer House.

Representing IBNA is Destin attorney Jennifer Sullivan, who also is representing prior complaints against Jones.

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