Jupiter Island Begins its Bumpy Road

Jupiter Island Takes First Steps on County’s Well-worn Path

It’s uncanny. Genteel Jupiter Island could well be following Martin County’s path into an abyss of costly and never-ending lawsuits that began nearly a decade ago.

The issues are similar. Some of the players are the same, but a potential for the corrupt use of power is eerily identical.

The road began in both Martin County and Jupiter Island with local governmental decisions that years later prompted legal action by landowners against their respective governing bodies.

A side issue arose in both disputes regarding an alleged failure to disclose public records by elected officials, violating Florida’s Sunshine Laws. Both instances wound up in separate civil lawsuits.

In Martin County, the Sunshine Law violations resulted in civil court sanctions of $500,000 against the county for violating the state’s public records laws.

The circuit court found in 2016 that three commissioners had not disclosed all relevant correspondence on their private email accounts, including former county commissioner Anne Scott, a current resident of Jupiter Island and a former town commissioner.

The Sunshine Law case in Jupiter Island involves just one commissioner, Jupiter Island Commissioner Michael Brooks, elected in March 2021. The civil suit was filed against the alleged offender individually, instead of the Town of Jupiter Island as a whole.

Besides the circumstances, another of the common denominators between the county and the town is attorney Ethan Loeb, a known champion of private property rights once affiliated with the Pacific Legal Foundation, representing landowners in both the Martin County and Jupiter Island cases.

Loeb waited more than a year for Martin County to fulfill a public records request on behalf of his client before resorting to a lawsuit in 2014 against the county to obtain them.

In Jupiter Island’s case, however, Loeb was not as patient.

He immediately filed a lawsuit on behalf of his Jupiter Island clients he calls “The Good Neighbors of 300 Block,” after Loeb discovered evidence that Brooks was blind-copying his emails to other town commissioners and to the principles in the lawsuit against the town … but allegedly had not produced them in response to Loeb’s public records request, according to court records.

In addition, the town clerk’s records showed that Brooks had informed her that all emails to his official town commission account would be directed to a separate, private email account he had created, according to court records, which blocked all access to his public records by town officials.

If proved, Brooks’ actions violate Florida’s public records laws. In addition to his civil liability, he could also be subject to criminal misdemeanor charges.

Similarly, Anne Scott, as a Martin County commissioner, established a private email account with which she conducted county business in 2013, yet failed to disclose the existence of the account when asked for her public records.

The discovery overturned a previous ruling by Circuit Court Judge Shields McManus in 2015 that no public records violations had occurred within Martin County government.

He called Scott’s action “… direct evidence of an unlawful refusal to disclose public records,” and predicted accurately that her actions would change the trial’s outcome.

The judge then overturned his previous ban on forensic examinations of Scott’s personal computer and private email accounts, and ordered a new trial in the case. A year later, the sanctions against Martin County were imposed by the circuit court.

Governmental Decisions with Similar Responses

A nine-mile-long barrier island protecting southern Martin County from storms, bordered by the Indian River (the Intracoastal Waterway) on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, the Town of Jupiter Island comprises a board of five elected commissioners, who employ a town manager and contract a town attorney.

Commissioners also appoint Jupiter Island residents to 10 boards, including a Board of Adjustment to hear residents’ requests for variances and adjustments to development standards, and the Impact Review Committee, the board central to this case, which weighs concerns regarding potential adverse impacts on neighbors by any proposed construction.

They vote to approve, approve with conditions, recommend resubmittal, or deny outright, a process undertaken by applicants before a building permit can be issued.

Their decisions are final; however, they may be appealed, in which case the town commission will hear evidence and make a final ruling. If a party remains dissatisfied with the decision, his or her only recourse then is to appeal to the circuit court.

Unlike Martin County’s decisions in 2013 that erupted into major court cases due to three commissioners’ deceptive conduct, a documented lack of transparency, and hidden agendas, the town’s now-contested Ordinance 376, which moved its waterfront setback line, was intended in part to reduce the possibility of such undue influence on the non-elected members of the town’s boards.

The legislative process the town undertook in 2018-2019 to bring more consistency to its coastal development by “straightening” the jagged waterfront setback line along its coast, applying the same standards for all waterfront properties instead of considering variance requests individually, was fully transparent, said town Mayor Whitney Pidot during the Nov. 16 town commission meeting.

Court records seem to support his assertion that show three major studies by the town, nine town commission meetings when the waterline setback was on the agenda for reports and discussion, as well as articles about the process in multiple issues of the Jupiter Island newsletter emailed to every resident.

Transparency among those who are now contesting the town’s decision to move the waterfront setback line two years after the fact is far less evident.

In fact, their public statements do not jive at all with their private emails.

Their actions, well documented by public records, are reminiscent of Martin County commissioners’ behind-the-scenes partnership with environmental activists in their joint public campaign to vilify Lake Point Restoration, a state- and federal-permitted business that had operated previously without complaint in Martin County for four years.

Neither Martin County commissioners nor environmental activists complained to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Environmental Protection, or the South Florida Water Management District over the two years Lake Point pursued its permits from state and federal agencies, or over the two years after it began operating as a rock mine and conducting its pilot project to clean water pumped from the C-44 canal through its rock pits.

Just as Lake Point opponents failed to comment on its project permits and plans, the litigants in the Jupiter Island case failed to comment or raise objections when town commissioners spent nearly a year conducting studies in consideration of straightening the island’s waterfront setback line.

The similarities between Martin County’s legal morass and the impending one by the Town of Jupiter Island do not end there. Perhaps, though, the similarities will end soon, allowing Jupiter Island to escape the litigation and negative publicity that besieged Martin County for nearly a decade.

December decisions and court rulings are the fork in Jupiter Island’s road.

Tomorrow is Part 2 in the series, Jupiter Island Begins its Bumpy Road

— By Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
Martin County Currents