Rule of Three

Article Posted on June 5, 2023

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As the saying goes, things come in threes!  Sometimes the rule of three is about good things.  Sometimes not so much. 

In the case of Martin County’s Rural Lifestyle Amendment, three critical rulings were recently made - one each at the local, state, and federal levels – that is worth examining.

Last week, three important things happened:
  • Governor DeSantis and the Cabinet - acting as the Administration Commission - sided with Martin County and affirmed the Rural Lifestyle Text Amendment is in compliance with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. 
  • Governor DeSantis signed SB540 which allows the prevailing party in a Comp Plan challenge (like Rural Lifestyle or Costco) the ability to recover legal costs. 
  • The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiff in the landmark wetland case, Sackett v. EPA. 
Here’s a brief recap of these decisions.

Rural Lifestyle is in compliance with Martin County’s Comp Plan. 

At the local level, it looks like the folks at Atlantic Fields will get their Wawa!  Ok, well that’s not quite the case but never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  In actuality, the Governor and Cabinet agreed with the County Commissioners that it’s ok to have a general store, so residents and guests do not have to travel out to Publix for basic sundries.  While I think we would all agree that this probably wasn’t the most pressing issue for our Governor last week, the process played out to a just and legally defensible conclusion. 

In the case of Atlantic Fields, future residents of the community will get their general store.  The rest of us get the benefit of:
  • having 800 acres of agricultural land placed into permanent preservation
  • a million-dollar facility which will provide a new public access to the Atlantic Ridge Preserve State Park
  • 125 acres of habitat restoration
  • Preservation and relocation of the historic Hobe Sound train station into downtown Hobe Sound for everyone to enjoy. 
Some of the naysayers may not agree, but personally I think those are pretty significant benefits to the public.

Senate Bill 540 signed into law, putting a damper on future frivolous lawsuits.

At the State level, the Governor signing Senate Bill 540 which now allows the prevailing parties in a Comprehensive Plan challenge the ability to recoup its legal fees.  Unlike challenges to other types of development orders, in a Comp Plan case there had been no penalty for filing a frivolous challenge.  Also, because Comp Plan changes are decided through the administrative process, there had been no ability to have the challenge thrown out on summary judgement.

In the past, folks could easily file challenges in the hopes they could throw a wrench into a particular development application they didn’t like. The strategy was to try to delay or deter a particular project from being able to move forward.  It also gave those individuals more time to try to pressure and influence elected officials to change their minds.  This tactic was publicly on display during the Costco fiasco

Those same people will tell you this bill is horrible and will curtail public involvement in the process. If they truly believed they had a legitimate and winning argument, you would think they’d be happy to proceed with their challenges and have all their legal bills paid by the government (a.k.a. the taxpayers) and developers! 

In reality, the only chilling effect this law will have is deterring the very people who have been filing frivolous lawsuits and challenges for decades – and never winning any of them.

Correcting Environmental Regulation Overstep

Lastly, on the Federal side, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled 9-0 in favor of Chantell and Mike Sackett in their case against the EPA. in their case against the EPA.  Why does this ruling matter here in Martin County?  The Sacketts were trying to build a home on a piece of land they purchased back in 2004.  In 2007, after obtaining the necessary local permits, the EPA stepped in and claimed their modest 3-bedroom home was being built on Federally protected wetlands.  The Sackett’s were threatened with fines of tens of thousands of dollars a day if they continued to develop their property. 

For years afterward, the Sacketts’ dispute languished in lower courts without resolution. Finally, in 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the issue at the heart of the Sacketts’ case: whether the EPA can expand the definition of “navigable waters” to include any semi-soggy parcel of land in the country, giving themselves virtually unlimited regulatory power.

In the unanimous decision, the Supreme Court rebuked EPA’s claim to limitless regulatory authority and determined the Sacketts’ land is not subject to the Clean Water Act.

While all Justices agreed on the judgment, they had different opinions on what should fall under the purview of the Clean Water Act. The prevailing 5-4 majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, held that the Clean Water Act extends to “only those wetlands with a continuous surface connection to bodies that are waters of the United States in their own right, so that they are ‘indistinguishable’ from those waters.”

Within the agricultural sector, many are calling this decision a major win for farmers, ranchers and private property rights.  And while we can all agree that protecting Martin County’s wetlands and other environmentally sensitive lands is important, this decision should NOT be considered a blow to wetland preservation.  Rather, the decision draws an important and appropriate distinction between Federal and State regulations and authority. 

So, when it comes to the rule of threes, in this case a little common sense and wise legal decision making will ultimately benefit the residents of Martin County. I for one, look forward to seeing the value that Atlantic Fields and other projects that can now move forward under Rural Lifestyle will bring to our community. 


Rick Hartman



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