Florida property owners often have to receive approval from associations and/or government agencies for changes to their property ranging from landscaping to major construction projects. What is a property owner to do when the association or agency giving the approval changes their position and revokes the initial approval? The answer is that the owner may be protected by the common law principle of Equitable Estoppel.
Under the principle of Equitable Estoppel, when one party makes a representation that they know or should know will be relied upon by another, and the other party does rely upon that representation by making a substantial change in their position, the party making the representation is estopped (or barred) from changing their position if the said change would result in harm to the party who relied on the representation. Of course, it is always best to get the representation in writing, signed by the individual empowered to approve or execute such documents on behalf of the appropriate agency. However, an email, text, or even verbal representation can be used in asserting a claim of Equitable Estoppel. It is key that the representation be made by someone with authority to speak for the approving authority and that the party who relied on the representation did so reasonably.
Florida Courts and Federal Courts applying Florida law have held that Equitable Estoppel applies to government agencies, including zone and permitting agencies, as well as private parties. See, Coral Springs St. Sys., Inc. v. City of Sunrise, 371 F.3d 1320 (11th Cir. 2004), applying Florida law. The Federal Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which encompasses all of Florida, went on to explain that Equitable Estoppel applies when a party has detrimentally relied on a representation by the other party or even without detrimental reliance when the party making the representation has acted in bad faith.
The Florida Second District Court of Appeal (2DCA) explained the principle of Equitable Estoppel as follows:
‘Stripped of the legal jargon which lawyers and judges have obfuscated it with, the theory of estoppel amounts to nothing more than an application of the rules of fair play. One party will not be permitted to invite another onto a welcome mat and then be permitted to snatch the mat away to the detriment of the party induced or permitted to stand thereon. A citizen is entitled to rely on the assurances and commitments of a zoning authority and if he does, the zoning authority is bound by its representations, whether they be in the form of words or deeds. . . .’
Town of Largo v. Imperial Homes Corp., 309 So. 2d 571, 573 (Fla. 2d DCA 1975) (internal quotations omitted).
In that case, the Second District Court of Appeal applied Equitable Estoppel to bar the Town of Largo from changing zoning, which would have denied a developer a building permit, once the developer had spent time and money developing construction plans based on prior representations by the town.
If you are a property owner, builder, or developer, facing a change in position by an approving authority after you have relied upon their previous representations, Equitable Estoppel may provide the shield you need to protect yourself and your investment. The experienced attorneys at Boatman Ricci are here to help. Call us at 239-330-1494 to schedule an initial consultation today.
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