Although a judge dismissed a civil lawsuit alleging Osceola County violated Florida Sunshine laws, she did without prejudice, meaning the case can be refiled.
Circuit Judge Margaret Schreiber dismissed the case, but did so without prejudice, allowing the case to move forward. She also granted a motion by the plaintiffs – Friends of Split Oak Forest, Speak Up Wekiva and St. Cloud resident Valerie Anderson – to include additional information and evidence in their case against the county.
The backdrop of the lawsuit is a controversial plan to extend Osceola Parkway through Split Oak Forest to benefit Sunbridge, a new community being built by Lake Nona developer Tavistock. However, the case now before Judge Schreiber has nothing to do with the toll road or the forest.
Instead, it alleges that the County Commission took “official action” at the April 16 board meeting – regarding the road and the forest – without allowing public comment as required by Florida’s open government statutes, also known as Sunshine Laws.
At that commission meeting, then-Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr. presented a letter from Tavistock that obligated the county and the commission to “lead a public process (both local and state) to get the associated land in the Split Oak Forest released for “right-of-way” for the Osceola Parkway extension.
In exchange for the county’s “full support,” Tavistock said it would relocate a wastewater treatment plant away from Split Oak and would donate upland scrub habitat as part of an environmental compensation package. The company gave the county 10 days to make a final decision on the proposal.
“Time is of the essence because in (Tavistock’s) world, time is money,” Hawkins said at the meeting.
The deal was hammered out between Tavistock and Hawkins, who is also chairman of the Central Florida Expressway Authority, or CFX, the toll road agency that ultimately controls where the road will be built.
“If CFX does move forward with the construction then our actions tonight will prompt the utility to be moved and Split Oak to be made stronger,” Hawkins told his fellow board members last spring.
Commissioner Peggy Choudhry was the only board member who expressed concern about the rushed agreement.
“I’m a little bit uncomfortable with it just because I haven’t had a chance to speak to the citizens and the environmentalists about what they feel about this. So that’s my reservation,” she said at the time.
Hawkins presented the Tavistock letter to the board during the last 30 minutes of the April 16 meeting set aside for commissioner comments, when the public is not permitted to speak.
Commissioners Brandon Arrington, Viviana Janer and Cheryl Grieb praised the deal and provided the consensus necessary for the county to move forward with the Tavistock agreement.
County Attorney Andrew Mai said at the time that the commission would need “to act consistently” with the terms set forth in the Tavistock letter or face “some risk.”
Florida Sunshine laws dictate that “members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before a board or commission.”
Alan Zimmet, a Tampa attorney representing the county, argued in court Wednesday that the board’s consensus on the letter did not constitute “official action” and that if it did it would be exempt from public comment, as is the case with the approval of board meeting minutes and government proclamations.
Friends of Split Oak Forest, a group of local residents and environmentalist from around Central Florida, has expressed opposition to any road alignment that would cut through Split Oak Forest for two years. The 17,89-acre conservation area off Narcoossee Road was jointly purchased by Osceola and Orange counties with taxpayer dollars more than 20 years ago.