UPDATED TO REFLECT 2011 LEGISLATIVE AMENDMENTS.
Consistency is required.
Once a jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan has been properly adopted, all “development” (see What is the development LDRs can regulate), both public and private, must be consistent with the comprehensive plan. §§163.3161(5) and 163.3194(1)(a), F.S. Similarly, all the jurisdiction’s land development regulations must also be consistent with the plan. §163.3194(1)(b), F.S.
“The statute is framed as a rule, a command to cities and counties that they must comply with their own Comprehensive Plans …. The statute does not say that local governments shall have some discretion as to whether a proposed development should be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. Consistency with a Comprehensive Plan is therefore not a discretionary matter.” Pinecrest Lakes, Inc. v. Shidel, 795 So.2d 191, 198 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001).
Definition of Consistency
The Florida Statutes provide a definition of what is meant by consistent. Section 163.3194(3)(a) , F.S., says:
A development order or land development regulation shall be consistent with the comprehensive plan if the land uses, densities or intensities, and other aspects of development permitted by such order or regulation are compatible with and further the objectives, policies, land uses, and densities or intensities in the comprehensive plan and if it meets all other criteria enumerated by the local government.
Breaking the definition down, first, it is the aspects of development that are at issue. Land uses, densities and intensities are specifically called out and, therefore, probably are the aspects of greatest issue, but the catch-all “other aspects” brings in all aspects of development. All aspects of development would mean not only the negative aspects, but also the positive ones. Second, the aspects of concern are only those permitted by the development order (abbreviated as “D.O.” for the rest of this article) or land development regulation (“LDR”). If the D.O. or LDR does not allow a development aspect, that aspect is not part of the review.
For the next part of the definition, “are compatible with” and “furthers,” the plan, §163.3177, F.S. formerly provided a definition of what was meant by these phrases in the context of consistency of local plans to state and regional plans, where “compatible with” meant not in conflict with and “furthers” meant to take action in the direction of the goals.” But those provisions were deleted by the 2011 changes. It is probably reasonable to assume the deletions had more to do with the decreased focus on comparing local comprehensive plans against state requirements than it being a statement that the definitions were no longer correct. Regardless, the recent amendments to the growth management statutes do now provides a definition of “compatibility” (“a condition in which land uses or conditions can coexist in relative proximity to each other in a stable fashion over time such that no use or condition is unduly negatively impacted directly or indirectly by another use or condition”) in the statutes, in §163.3164(9), F.S., which may help in analyzing what consistency means.
Using that definition of compatibility this would mean that the D.O. or LDR is “compatible with” (has achieved compatibility with) the comprehensive plan if it ”can coexist” in “a stable fashion” without “unduly negatively impacting” the plan. This is essentially the same as the previous statute definition, of being not in conflict with.
But the definition of consistency also requires that the D.O or LDR must “further” the goals or policies of the comprehensive plan. There is no clear definition of “furthers” in the current growth management statutes, but it is not unreasonable, given its usage, to use the ordinary meaning – furthers means to advance or assist in moving forward. This would mean that the D.O. or LDR must not only not conflict with, but must also help advance, the provisions of the comprehensive plan. This requires an affirmative action – an implementing of the comprehensive plan provisions.
The last part (“and if it meets all other criteria enumerated by the local government”) seems a bit vague, especially in reference to an LDR. The “it” referenced appears to be the D.O. or LDR and, as the sentence is in the conjunctive, the “other criteria enumerated” appear to potentially be criteria separate from the comprehensive plan (reading that part of the sentence as “A [D.O. or LDR] shall be consistent with the comprehensive plan … if it meets all other criteria enumerated by the local government). It isn’t clear if these would be procedural criteria or some other type of criteria.
Putting all these provisions together, a D.O. or LDR is consistent with the comprehensive plan if:
- The aspects of development allowed by the D.O./LDR are:
- Not in conflict with; and
- Advance or assist in moving forward the goals, objectives, policies, land uses, densities, and intensities in the comprehensive plan; and
- The D.O./LDR meets all the other criteria enumerated by the local government.
The part of the comprehensive plan relevant in a consistency evaluation.
Once it is determined what is meant by “consistent,” the issue becomes what parts of the comprehensive plan a D.O. or LDR must be measured against for consistency. The easy, but perhaps too simple, answer is all parts. The growth management act say development is expected to conform with the comprehensive plan, elements, or portions thereof. §§ 163.3161(5) and 163.3194(1)(a) and (b), F.S. An often cited case said that the review is to determine conformity with “each element and the objectives of the land use plan ….” Machado v. Musgrove, 519 So.2d 629, 632 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987). Although certainly highly relevant, courts have also said that all of the elements, not just the future land use element, that should be considered. Sw. Ranches Homeowners Ass’n, Inc. v. Broward County, 502 So.2d 931, 935 (Fla. 4th DCA 1987).
But the reality is that not every part of the comprehensive plan is necessarily relevant to the particular aspects of development allowed by each D.O./LDR. If, for example, the D.O. is for a use that has no wetland impacts (positive or negative), the comprehensive plan policies related to wetlands would not be relevant. There may be whole sections of the comprehensive plan that may have no relevance to a specific D.O or LDR (e.g. the Capital Improvement Element is not relevant to a D.O. for a use that has no impact on public facilities).
A recent case reflects this position, saying the section 163.3194(4)(a), F.S., admonition that courts should consider the “reasonableness of the comprehensive plan” means that irrelevant provisions in the comprehensive plan should not be considered and that the relevant provision should be reviewed as a whole, to produce “the most reasonable and holistic interpretation, based on both the text and the synthesis of the document ….” Arbor Properties, Inc. v. Lake Jackson Prot. Alliance, Inc., 51 So. 3d 502 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010), reh’g denied (Jan. 26, 2011). Similarly, another recent case, Katherine’s Bay, LLC v. Fagan 52 So. 3d 19 (Fla. 1st DCA, 2010), stated that, in a review of consistency with the comprehensive plan, not only should the rule of construction that all provisions on related subjects be read in pari materia and harmonized so that each is given effect be applied, but the rules of construction that specific provisions control over general ones and that one provision should not be read in such a way that it renders another provision meaningless also apply.
Another recent case, however, seems to suggest that, in at least some circumstances, the controlling factor is whether the requested D.O. is consistent with the land uses allowed in the applicable land use category, without regard to other potential violations of the goals, policies, or objectives of the comprehensive plan. Rehman v. Lake County, 56 So. 3d 852(Fla. 5th DCA 2011).
Level of Review – Strict Scrutiny
The expectation of consistency with the comprehensive plan is very high. When courts examine the issue, they do not defer to the local government in the government’s decision of what is or isn’t consistent, as is done in some other reviews of local government determinations, Pinecrest Lakes, Inc. v. Shidel, 795 So.2d 191 (Fla, 4th DCA 2001); the standard of court review is “strict scrutiny.” Machado v. Musgrove, 519 So.2d 629, 633 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987). So what does that mean?
First, although the name is the same, strict scrutiny in the comprehensive plan consistency context is not the same as the type of strict scrutiny review in some constitutional cases. Bd. of County Com’rs of Brevard County v. Snyder, 627 So.2d 469, 475 (Fla. 1993). The court in Machado, defined strict scrutiny based on the meaning of the two words, saying “[s]trict implies rigid exactness or precision. A thing scrutinized has been subjected to minute investigation. Strict scrutiny is thus the process whereby a court makes a detailed examination of a statute, rule or order of a tribunal for exact compliance with, or adherence to, a standard or norm. It is the antithesis of a deferential review.” Machado, 519 So.2d at 632 (internal citations omitted). This means that, since the courts will hold them to that standard, every decision on a development order and every change to a land development regulation must exactly comply with the applicable provisions of the comprehensive plan.
Consistency of Land Development Regulations with Comprehensive Plan
Putting the components of consistency together, to achieve consistency with the comprehensive plan, a LDR provision, new or existing, must regulate the subject aspects of development in a way that not only does not conflict with the relevant provisions of the comprehensive plan, but also implements the applicable provisions of the plan, and must do so with exactness and precision. Given the way many LDRs, not to mention comprehensive plans, are written, this is a pretty tall order.
Consistency of Development Orders with Comprehensive Plan
Putting the components of consistency together, for a D.O., to achieve consistency with the comprehensive plan, an approved D.O. must allow the specific aspects of development in a way that not only does not conflict with the relevant provisions of the comprehensive plan, but also implements the applicable provisions of the plan, with exactness and precision; and must meet all of the applicable criteria of the LDRs or other applicable regulations. For an approval through a quasi-judicial hearing process, at least, there must be competent substantial evidence in the record demonstrating such consistency compliance. See the article What is competent substantial evidence in Florida land use hearings for more on compentent substantial evidence.
Because §163.3215 consistency challenges may be brought to challenge a denial, as well as an approval, of the D.O., if the applicant provides evidence that the D.O. will be consistent with the comprehensive plan, to deny it, the local government must counter that evidence or, in the case of a rezoning application, show that the existing zoning is also consistent with the comprehensive plan. County Com’rs of Brevard County v. Snyder, 627 So.2d 469 (Fla. 1993).
A §163.3215 consistency challenge to a D.O. can arise in three instances: “1) where it materially alters the use of a property; 2) where it materially alters the density of [the] property; or 3) where the intensity of the use of the property is materially altered.” Lake Rosa v Board of County Com’rs, 911 So. 2d 206 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005) referencing §163.3215(1), F.S. The limitation to these three instances raises the question of whether such a challenge can be brought when the challenge is to the characteristics of the use, other than density or intensity, rather than the allowance of the use (i.e. can suit be brought when a use is a permitted use, of permitted intensity or density, but has characteristics, such as aesthetic impacts or the potential to increase traffic congestion, that may be inconsistent with provisions in the comprehensive plan). Although not specifically addressed in the opinion, this might be the situation in Rehman v. Lake County, 56 So. 3d 852 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011), discussed above, and the reason the court found the D.O. consistent with the comprehensive plan.
In bringing a §163.3215 consistency challenge, it is the comprehensive plan that is in place at the time of the decision on the D.O. that governs. Lake Rosa v. Board of County Com’rs, 911 So.2d 206, 209 (Fla. 5th DCA 2005). The action that governs when the filing time frame begins to run for a §163.3215 challenge is when the clerk for the governing body files the development order in the official records. 5220 Biscayne Blvd., LLC v. Stebbins, 937 So.2d 1189 (Fla. 3rd DCA 2006).
In the judicial review of the consistency question, the statutes say a reviewing court “may consider, among other things, the reasonableness of the comprehensive plan, [relative to the issue raised for the court's consideration,] or the appropriateness and completeness of the comprehensive plan … in relation to the governmental action or development regulation under consideration,” §163.3194(4)(a), F.S., but that the act is to be ”construed broadly to accomplish its stated purposes and objectives.” §163.3194(4)(b), F.S. This has been found to be ”a recognition of the court’s inherent power to take into account fundamental fairness questions as may arise from a strict application of the plan ….” Machado v. Musgrove, 519 So.2d 629, 635 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987).