In Miami-Dade County v. City of Miami, Circuit Court, 11th Judicial Circuit (Appellate) in and for Miami-Dade County (Case No. 18-000032-AP-01) [26 Fla. L. Weekly 800b], an appeal was filed by Miami-Dade County (the “County”) from proceedings stemming from plans to renovate the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The Court ultimately ruled that the City of Miami departed from essential requirements of the law when it found that city residents were an “aggrieved party” and therefore had standing to challenge the City of Miami’s Historical and Environment Preservation Board decision. Further, the Court also importantly found the County was not afforded procedural due process as the County was not afforded notice of the relevant hearing and an opportunity to be heard during the proceeding. Adequate notice requires that the scope of the hearing be properly identified and therefore, the City exceeded the scope of the hearing by including the interior of the building in its decision to grant the appeal. This violated the County’s procedural due process.

The Court found that where the term “aggrieved party” was not defined by the local code, the city was required to utilize the special-injury standard for determining standing rather than making its own interpretation. Therefore, Miami-Dade County was not afforded procedural due process where City exceeded the scope of the hearing by including issues outside of the purview of the board.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse, which opened as a silent movie theater in 1927, had its interior substantially renovated in 1955 by architect Alfred Browning Parker. Extensive additional interior renovations were completed during the ensuing years giving rise to conflicting views as to whether the interior of the building maintains the architectural integrity of either the 1927 or 1955 design. Despite best efforts, the Playhouse fell victim to financial difficulties and eventually became the property of the State of Florida.

In 2005, the Playhouse was designated a local historic site by the City of Miami’s Historical and Environment Preservation Board (herein referred to as Historical Board). Although the Designation Report establishing the site as historic was expansive in its recognition of the Playhouse’s significance to the City of Miami, it found that only the south and east facades of the building remained architecturally significant. The Historical Board’s Designation Report did not include the building’s interior, thus removing renovations to the interior of the building from the Historical Board’s purview.

In 2013, the State entered into a lease agreement with Miami-Dade County and Florida International University to renovate the Playhouse. The County, FIU, and the GableStage theater company adopted a business plan to develop a regional theater on the property. The business plan was approved by the Board of County Commissioners and an architectural firm was selected to develop the plan after a public bidding process.

The County sought a Certificate of Appropriateness from the City’s Historical and Environment Preservation Board after completing plans for renovation of the Playhouse. A Certificate of Appropriateness is required before undertaking renovations within a designated historic site[i]. The evaluation requires that the Historical Board to evaluate whether the proposed alterations “adversely affect the historic architectural or aesthetic character of the subject structure or the relationship and congruity between the subject structure and surroundings. . .” before issuing a Certificate of Appropriateness.

The Historical Board held a public hearing in which the plan was adopted and a Certificate of Appropriateness was granted. The plan approved by the Historical Board restores the front of the building that is deemed historically significant in the Designation Report and replaces the existing auditorium with a new 300-seat theater that incorporates historic elements of the existing playhouse.

Grove residents filed an appeal of the Board’s approval with the City of Miami Commission. The County objected arguing that the residents filing the appeal did not have standing and did not meet the definition of an “aggrieved party”. Neither the City nor any other entity filed an appeal of the Historical Board’s decision to issue a Certificate of Appropriateness.

City of Miami Code Section 23-4 (c) (7) provides that “any aggrieved party” may appeal decisions of the Board to the City Commission. The Code does not define the term “aggrieved party.” The City overruled the County’s objection and granted the Residents standing to appeal. In so doing, the City acknowledged it had previously opined that an “aggrieved party” for standing in zoning matters was a resident that lived within 500 feet of the property. Although the residents lodging the appeal did not fall within this category, the City concluded they nevertheless had standing because the Playhouse was a facility they could elect to attend, they lived close to the Playhouse, they wanted the Playhouse preserved, and the Playhouse was deemed important to the community.

The appeal was heard before the Commission and varying opinions regarding the plan were once again addressed. At the end of the hearing, the City Commission granted in part and denied in part the appeal. Unlike the plan approved by the Historical Board through the issuance of the Certificate of Appropriateness, the City Commission made substantial changes to the plan. The Commission required that the entire Playhouse structure, rather than merely the front facade be preserved; that various specific fixtures of the interior of the building be preserved in their location; and that, contingent upon an additional 20 million dollars being pledged within 100 days, the auditorium have no less than 600 seats rather than the 300 seats envisioned by the plan.

Based on those modifications to the plan, the Court found the changes represented a substantial change from the plan approved by the Historical Board prior to the appeal.

The County sought certiorari review of the City Commission’s decision reversing in part the issuance of the Certificate of Appropriateness and maintained that the City’s decision departs from the essential requirements of law, violates due process, and is not supported by substantial competent evidence. The Residents were permitted to file an appellate brief regarding their standing to appeal the Board’s issuance of a Certificate of Appropriateness to the City Commission.

The Court’s review on a writ of certiorari is limited to determining whether procedural due process was accorded; whether the essential requirements of the law were observed; and whether the administrative findings and judgment are supported by competent substantial evidence[ii].

The County argued that the City departed from the essential requirements of law by granting residents standing to appeal the preservation board’s decision to grant the Certificate of Appropriateness law because it is at odds with governing case law, particularly Chabau v. Dade County, 385 So. 2d 129 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980), and the Court agreed.

The Grove residents appealed the Historical Board’s decision to issue a Certificate of Appropriateness as “aggrieved parties”. The term is not defined in the Code. The City asserts that its determination to include the Grove residents within the City’s definition of aggrieved party was not a departure from the essential requirements of law because local governments are charged with the interpretation and enforcement of their codes and their interpretations are entitled to judicial deference if they are within the range of possible permissible interpretations. The Court stated that although the general principle exists that courts are to afford an agency difference regarding interpretation of their own ordinances when the agency is responsible for the administration of that ordinance[iii], the generalized principle did not frustrate controlling caselaw.

In its holding, the Court found controlling Chabau v. Miami Dade County, 385 So. 2d 129 (Fla. 3d DCA 1980), the Third District overruled the County’s determination that an entity had standing to appeal a zoning board’s decision as an “aggrieved party.” The Court ruled that absent a definition of the term “aggrieved party” in the County’s code to the contrary, the definition of an “aggrieved party” to appeal a decision of the zoning board was governed by imposing the requirement for standing found in case law. In other words, a party must have suffered some special injury to have standing[iv]. Therefore, the parties in this case were required to establish more than a generalized interest[v][vi][vii].

The residents in this case did not meet the special-injury standard for designation as “aggrieved parties”. Observing the essential requirements of the law requires applying the correct law in proper fashion[viii]. The City’s failure to apply Chabau was a failure to follow established precedent and a departure from the essential requirements of the law sufficiently egregious or fundamental to result in a miscarriage of justice warranting issuance of certiorari.

Moreover, the Court found the County was not afforded procedural due process. Due process is satisfied if the parties are afforded notice of the relevant hearing and an opportunity to be heard during that proceeding. Adequate notice requires that the scope of the hearing be properly identified. Therefore, granting relief “which is not sought by the notice of hearing or which expands the scope of a hearing and decides matters not noticed for hearing, violates due process.”[ix] The Court found that consideration of preservation of the interior of the building was outside the purview of the appeal and expanded the scope of the hearing without proper notice. More specifically, the City exceeded the scope of the hearing by including the interior of the building in its decision to grant the appeal thereby violating the County’s procedural due process.

Having found that the City departed from the essential requirements of law by granting standing and that issuance of a writ of certiorari was warranted, the Court reversed and remanded the matter with instructions that the decision of the Miami City Commission denying the Certificate of Appropriateness be quashed.