Coral Springs Street Systems v. City of Sunrise, No. 03-11497.

Decision Date07 June 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03-11497.
Citation371 F.3d 1320
PartiesCORAL SPRINGS STREET SYSTEMS, INC., a Florida corporation, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. CITY OF SUNRISE, a Florida municipality, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Michael T. Burke, Johnson, Anselmo, Murdoch, Burke & George, Fort Lauderdale, FL, for Defendant-Appellant.

Thomas R. Julin, Dorothy Patricia Wallace, Hunton & Williams, Miami, Gary R. Rutledge, Rutledge, Ecenia, Underwood, Purnell & Hoffman P.A., Tallahassee, FL, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

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

Before HULL, MARCUS and STAHL*, Circuit Judges.

MARCUS, Circuit Judge:

In this sign ordinance case, the City of Sunrise (the "City") appeals the district court's grant of final summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff, Coral Springs Street Systems, Inc. ("Coral Springs"). Coral Springs petitioned for equitable relief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, claiming that Article XIV of the City's Land Development Code (the "Sign Code") was unconstitutional in its entirety at the time that Coral Springs applied for and was denied a sign permit. After thorough review, we are convinced the case is moot and therefore nonjusticiable.

Before suit was even brought in this case, the old Sign Code was replaced by the City with an "Amended Sign Code" that eliminated most of the constitutionally infirm provisions; but the new Code unquestionably prohibited the sign that Coral Springs wants to erect. Moreover, there is no hint the City of Sunrise has any intention of reenacting the old Sign Code. And, as we read the law of Florida, Coral Springs acquired no vested right in a permit to build the sign, both because it has not relied detrimentally on the law as it existed under the old Sign Code and because the City has at no point acted in bad faith. Finally, portions of the Amended Sign Code that may be unconstitutional are fully severable from those that actually caused the permit to be denied. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment and remand with instructions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


The facts of this case are not in dispute. Coral Springs Street Systems is engaged in the business of constructing billboards on real estate that it buys or leases. On March 17, 1999, Street Information Systems, Inc., another billboard company not involved in this case, entered into a lease agreement with Sawgrass Ford, Inc., a car dealer located in the City of Sunrise. Under the terms of the agreement, Sawgrass Ford agreed to lease land on its property to Street Information Systems for twenty years, so that Street Information Systems could erect a billboard overlooking a busy thoroughfare, the Sawgrass Expressway.

Several provisions of the agreement violated the Sign Code. Among other things, the agreement provided for the construction of a "pole sign," which was prohibited under the Sign Code. Moreover, the Sign Code allowed only one sign to be erected on each piece of property, and Sawgrass Ford already had a sign, so the construction of another one plainly violated the Sign Code.

On August 1, 2000, Street Information Systems assigned its rights, title, and interest in the lease to the plaintiff Coral Springs. On September 6, 2001, Coral Springs applied for a permit to erect an "off-premises" outdoor advertising sign on a pole. At the top of the pole Coral Springs intended to place a two-sided, illuminated, 672-square-foot sign face. On September 18, the City verbally denied the application and, on November 13, the City confirmed the denial in writing, observing that the proposed sign would violate the Sign Code in no less than six different ways:

1. § 16-252 of the Sign Code allowed no sign to exceed 8.5 feet in height.1 The sign Coral Springs applied for would have been 65 feet tall 2. § 16-252 flatly prohibited any sign that exceeded eighty-five square feet in total surface area.2 The proposed sign would have had an area of 672 square feet.

3. § 16-252 said that the "Number maximum" for "Nonresidential district permanent signs" was "1 per parcel with main street frontage." The proposed sign would in fact have been the second sign on the parcel.

4. § 16-248(a)(7) included "pole signs" on the list of "prohibited signs."3 The proposed sign would have been mounted on a pole.

5. § 16-255 mandated specific landscaping designs for signs.4 Coral Springs' proposed sign included no landscaping whatsoever.

6. § 16-248(a)(6) prohibited "[o]ff-premise commercial signs or billboards except bus shelter or bench signs, and temporary project sign [sic.]." Coral Springs' proposed sign was an off-premise commercial sign not falling within any of the exceptions.5

The Code also contained a number of other noteworthy provisions, not cited as reasons for the rejection of Coral Springs' application, but otherwise attacked by Coral Springs as being unconstitutional.6 In response to the City's list of purported transgressions, Coral Springs' attorney wrote the City on November 25, 2001, claiming that the City's Sign Code violated the First Amendment. Just sixteen days later, on December 11, the City amended the Sign Code, adopting Ordinance No. 402-01-K, § 1 (the "Amended Sign Code"), eliminating many of the allegedly unconstitutional provisions of the old Sign Code. The Amended Sign Code substantively retained all the provisions of the Sign Code that were cited in the rejection of Coral Springs' sign application. Thus, § 16-252 of the Amended Sign Code prohibited signs over 8.5 feet high, or over 85 square feet in area, or more than one sign per parcel. Section 16-248(6) prohibited "pole signs." Section 16-255 set forth the exact same landscaping requirements contained in the Sign Code. Section 16-247(b)(26) defined an "[o]ff-premise sign" as "[a]ny sign advertising a commercial establishment, activity, product, service or entertainment, which is sold, produced, manufactured, available or furnished at a place other than on the property on which the sign is located" — exactly the same definition given to an "off-premise commercial sign" in the Sign Code. And § 16-248 prohibited such "[o]ff-premises signs except temporary project signs."

The Amended Sign Code did make some significant changes. The new Code said that "[n]otwithstanding any provisions of this article to the contrary, to the extent that this article contains a sign containing commercial copy, it shall permit a non-commercial sign to the same extent." Amended Sign Code § 16-247(a). The provision allowing temporary political signs imposed time limits on political signs only "[i]f the copy is related to an election." Id. § 16-253. The Amended Sign Code also specifically provided that the City "shall approve or deny the sign permit based on whether it complied with the requirements of this article," Id. § 16-261, and it required approval or denial of permit applications within 30 days after receipt of an application. Id. Finally, the new Code expressly provided for prompt appellate review of application denials by the city commission and by the Circuit Court of Broward County.7

Notably, Coral Springs never reapplied for a permit under the Amended Sign Code. Instead, it filed suit in federal district court on December 31, 2001. Its argument essentially was that the Sign Code was unconstitutional on its face when Coral Springs applied for the permit on September 6, 2001; that the unconstitutional provisions of the Sign Code could not be severed from the constitutional parts, meaning the entire statute was unlawful and therefore void; and consequently, that there was no enforceable Sign Code in place at the time of the application. In short, the plaintiff said, the application satisfied all state laws and the City had no valid basis for rejecting it, and, under Florida law, its right to the building permit vested at the moment it submitted an application. Finally, Coral Springs claimed, parts of the Amended Sign Code remained unconstitutional.

The City responded that the lawsuit was moot because the City had amended the challenged Sign Code and Coral Springs had never reapplied for a permit under the new law. Furthermore, the City argued, the old Sign Code was constitutional anyway, and to the extent that parts of it may not have been, they were nonetheless severable from the remaining valid parts, which included all of the provisions cited by the City in denying Coral Springs' application. Finally, the City said, Coral Springs had no vested right to the approval of its permit.

On February 21, 2003, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Coral Springs on all counts. See Coral Springs St. Sys., Inc. v. City of Sunrise, 287 F.Supp.2d 1313 (S.D.Fla.2003). Before deciding whether it had jurisdiction, the district court first ruled that the old Sign Code was unconstitutional. The court reasoned that the original Code favored commercial speech over non-commercial speech by prohibiting certain kinds of non-commercial signs, but not prohibiting any kind of commercial sign. Id. at 1319. In addition, the court found that the Code impermissibly restricted signs on the basis of content, because some noncommercial messages were permitted while others were not. Id.

As for mootness, the district court held that the case was justiciable. It wrote:

The City argues that Coral Springs' claims are mooted by the enactment of the Amended Sign Code. The Eleventh Circuit has held that "when an application for a permit satisfies all existing and pending laws, the permit must then issue: a new law passed after the application was filed has no effect on the matter of issuance," Nat'l v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 8 F.3d 36 (11th Cir., Oct.26, 1993) (per curiam) (unpublished table decision No. 92-4750). Here, Coral Springs applied...

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