605 F.2d 762 (5th Cir. 1979), 76-2775, United States v. 320.0 Acres of Land, More or Less in Monroe County, State of Fla.

Docket Nº:76-2775.
Citation:605 F.2d 762
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. 320.0 ACRES OF LAND, MORE OR LESS IN the COUNTY OF MONROE, STATE OF FLORIDA,and Salvatore R. Ciccone, et al., Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:October 31, 1979
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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605 F.2d 762 (5th Cir. 1979)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

320.0 ACRES OF LAND, MORE OR LESS IN the COUNTY OF MONROE,

STATE OF FLORIDA,and Salvatore R. Ciccone, et al.,

Defendants-Appellants.

No. 76-2775.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 31, 1979

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William G. Earle, Miami, Fla., for defendants-appellants.

Peter R. Taft, Asst. Atty. Gen., Edmund B. Clark, Atty., Peter R. Steenland, Atty., Dept. of Justice, Washington, D. C., for plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Before BROWN, Chief Judge, THORNBERRY and CLARK, Circuit Judges.

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JOHN R. BROWN, Chief Judge:

The Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which provides that private property shall not be taken without just compensation, is one of the most basic constitutional guarantees that the rights of the individual will not be unfairly sacrificed in the pursuit of the common weal. In this eminent domain case, appellant landowners claim that this constitutional guarantee has been breached, that because of numerous substantive and procedural errors in the proceedings below they have not been adequately and justly compensated for the loss of their properties condemned by the Federal Government.

The public project in this case is Everglades National Park, which covers approximately 2000 square miles of the southernmost portion of the Florida peninsula. The compensation trials below involved 63 tracts (totalling approximately 788 acres) taken for inclusion within the Park. The owners of 52 of the tracts have appealed. Among the issues they present is the proper application of the "scope of the project" rule and the principle of "highest and best use." We vacate because of procedural deficiencies, but we also enunciate the legal standards of just compensation that are to guide retrial of the 52 tracts appealed, as well as literally hundreds of other properties condemned for Everglades National Park and the neighboring Big Cypress National Preserve.

Because the history of Everglades National Park is so important to a proper understanding and just resolution of this case, our opinion begins with a brief review of that history. Then, in Part I, we recount the proceedings in the District Court, including the procedural error which invalidated those proceedings almost before they began. After an overview of the basic principles of just compensation law in Part II, we turn to the important substantive issues raised by this appeal. With respect to the scope of the project rule, we first discuss the rule generally (Part IIIA), including its underlying precepts and how it has been applied in other major federal court decisions. We then review several errors in its application by the District Court to the facts of these Everglades condemnation proceedings (Part IIIB), followed by a discussion of how the rule should be applied upon remand (Part IIIC). We conclude our consideration of the rule with a discussion of the differing responsibilities it imposes upon the judge and the fact-finder in just compensation trials (Part IIID). In Part IV, we review an evidentiary ruling concerning the admissibility of certain "comparable sales" in the trials below. Important issues concerning "highest and best use" and compensation for "illegal uses" are discussed in Parts V and VI respectively. Part VII is devoted to several miscellaneous evidentiary issues that arose during the District Court trials, including the admissibility of just compensation statements sent landowners prior to the institution of eminent domain proceedings. Finally, in Part VIII, we remand the issue of just compensation in these cases for trial by a commission in lieu of trial by a jury.

Everglades National Park And The Northwest Extension

The origins of this case trace back to 1929 when the Federal Government first began to investigate the prospects of establishing a National Park in the Everglades. 1 In 1930, the Secretary of the Interior recommended the establishment of a national park encompassing about 2000 square miles (1,280,000 acres) of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, and in 1934 Congress took the first tentative steps toward establishment of the Park. 2 However, largely because Congress refused to authorize purchase of parklands with public money, 3 Everglades

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National Park did not become a reality until 1947, when it was established and dedicated with a nucleus of 454,000 acres granted by the State of Florida. 4 In addition to the land donations, the State of Florida made available to the Federal Government $2,000,000 with which the Department of the Interior began to acquire privately owned lands within the designated Park boundaries. 5

After certain changes in the park boundaries declared by the Secretary of the Interior, Congress, in the Act of July 2, 1958, 6 officially redefined the park boundaries, since when the dimensions of the Park have not been changed. The 1958 Act included within the Park for the first time an area known as the Northwest Extension, in which the properties involved in this case are located. Overall, the 1958 Act increased the size of the Park to 1,390,000 acres, of which all but 197,000 acres were at that time owned by the United States. Of these 197,000 acres, some were contemplated to remain in private ownership, 7 some were to be donated to the Federal Government, and 81,000 acres among them the 788 acres at issue in this case were to be acquired "as appropriations become available for the purpose." 8

The 1958 Act, however, severely limited the amount that could be appropriated for purchasing the remaining privately held lands, by putting a ceiling upon future appropriations of $2,000,000 (approximately $24 per acre). 9 Moreover, not even a fraction of the privately held lands could be purchased immediately as Congress did not appropriate Any money for that purpose for some time. When anxious landowners inquired of the Department of the Interior concerning the status of their lands and the possibility of imminent condemnation, they were assured, in a series of letters between 1958 and 1962, that the Department would not begin its acquisition program until Congress appropriated the necessary funds, that the Department did not know when Congress would in fact appropriate the funds, but that in the meantime the landowners were completely free to sell, use, or improve their within-Park properties as they were able to and as they saw fit. 10

As things developed, the Department of the Interior did not begin to purchase privately held lands with federal funds until 1966, 11 and when it did, the $2,000,000 authorized back in 1958 was quickly exhausted. As Congress subsequently realized, the 1958 authorization had been made without the benefit of any detailed appraisals and the errors made in the estimates were compounded by "the rapid escalation of land prices" so that the $2,000,000 was insufficient for the acquisition of at least 74,000 acres of the remaining privately owned land. 12 It was not until 1970 that Congress fully remedied its initial underestimation of the money necessary to complete its acquisition program, when it withdrew the $2,000,000 cap and increased the authorized appropriation elevenfold to $22,000,000. 13 Congress actually appropriated most of this sum shortly thereafter and, sometime in 1971 or 1972, the Department of the Interior began the process of acquiring the remaining

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privately held parklands, including those involved in this case.

I. THE PROCEEDINGS BELOW

The 52 tracts of land involved in this appeal were among thousands of Everglades parcels destined for acquisition once Congress loosened the pursestrings. The acquisition of many tracts was accomplished through settlement negotiations, but hundreds more went to trial in the Southern District of Florida. Processing these hundreds of eminent domain cases, most of which involved parcels of land an acre or two in size, involved peculiar problems of judicial administration and, in turn, required somewhat unusual solutions. For most of the landowners, the costs of litigating their cases individually were prohibitive. Consequently, the "trial" in many cases those in which the owner had neither retained counsel nor requested a jury trial consisted of a Government appraiser taking the stand and reading his estimate of fair market value for a number of tracts, followed by the entry of judgment in the amount of the appraised sum for each tract on the list. Other landowners, however, would pool their resources and retain one attorney to represent their cases jointly. The District Judges, then, had the unenviable task of presiding over a process that was inherently chaotic sending notice to hundreds of landowners, trying in summary fashion those parcels not represented by an attorney, holding pre-trial conferences and hearings for those tracts represented by a handful of attorneys, and then finally conducting full-blown compensation trials involving upwards of thirty parcels each.

To achieve justice in a situation like this, where the condemned properties are distinguishable only by a docket number and a tract number, is no easy task. Few if any Trial Judges no matter how conscientious could be expected to maintain order without the cooperation of the one other party that was an ongoing participant throughout the entire proceedings namely, the United States Government. Unfortunately, the Government attorneys, at least in this case, did not shoulder their responsibility for facilitating justice in these unusual circumstances, but instead assumed the distinctly adversarial role more appropriate to the...

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