When does a local government ordinance become a restrictive covenant that is subject to being extinguished through application of the Marketable Record Title Act, Florida Statute section 712.01 et. seq.? That was the question in Save Calusa Trust v. St. Andrews Holdings, Ltd., 193 So. 3d 910 (Fla. 3d DCA 2016), where the Third District Court of Appeal held that a restrictive covenant imposed by government as part of development order is not subject to and cannot be extinguished by the Marketable Record Title Act.
This case begins in 1967 when a developer sought to create a golf-course in Miami-Dade County. The real property was zoned General Use (“GU”), which did not permit a golf course, so the developer sought and obtained an “unusual use” that same year with the County's Zoning Appeals Board (“ZAB”) adopted a resolution with the condition that a restrictive covenant be recorded that limit the future use of the property to a golf course. This first developer sold to a second developer who, in fact, recorded a restrictive covenant as follows:
The aforedescribed property may only be used for the following purposes:
A golf course and for the operation of a country club which may include a clubhouse, pro shop, locker rooms, swimming pools, cabanas, liquor, beer and wine facilities, dining room facilities, parking, tennis courts, putting greens, golf driving ranges and all other uses incidental thereto.
These restrictions shall continue for a period of ninety-nine years unless released or revised by the Board of County Commissioners of the County of Dade, State of Florida, or its successors with the consent of 75% of the members of the corporation owning the aforedescribed property and those owners within 150 feet of the exterior boundaries of the aforedescribed property.
“[t]hat restrictive covenants running with the land in proper covenant form, meeting with the approval of the Zoning Director, be recorded to ensure that the golf course be perpetually maintained as such....”
Save Calusa, 193. So. 3d at 912.
The property was developed as a golf course, and a “ring” of 140 homes were built around the golf course. These owners in the “ring” paid no dues for the maintenance of the golf course and did not otherwise maintain the course. Id. at 912 – 23. This arrangement stayed in place until the golf course closed in 2011. A later developer sought to re-develop the golf course, and to no one’s surprise, failed to get 75% of the “ring” homeowners to approve the proposed change. Accordingly, the county refused to let the newest developer change the zoning of the parcel. Id at 913. This litigation followed.
Rather than filing an administrative challenge to the county’s decision, the owner of the now defunct golf-course filed suit seeking to invalidate the deed restriction under the Marketable Record Title Act (MRTA) and joined the “ring” homeowners and the county. The trial court entered a detailed summary judgment finding for the developer that the restrictive covenants were barred by MRTA. The homeowners and the county appealed to the Third District.
The Third District reversed and held that the use restrictions were exempt from MRTA:
While we are not unsympathetic to Owner's arguments, we cannot so readily divorce the covenant from the governmental approval process that spawned it. The record reflects that ZAB's approval of Developer's unusual use application for the golf course acreage was final administrative agency action. ZAB's unusual use approval was not a recommendation to the County Commission, but rather, a final approval conditioned on the recordation of the restrictive covenant. The record clearly reflects that the ZAB Resolution imposed a condition that a restrictive covenant be generated and recorded. As the unusual use approval was final as of August 16, 1967, the date of the ZAB Resolution, so was the prescribed restrictive covenant. That the Developer's successor took seven months to record the restrictive covenant is of no significance.
Id. at 915.
In other words, the Third District held the fact that the restrictive covenant arose out of the governmental approval process imbued it with the ability to withstand extinguishment under MRTA since it was now a government regulation. This decision has created a great deal of concern among some because almost all planned subdivision restrictions are created through a “governmental approval process” and could conceivably be exempt from MRTA. The concern is that MRTA is intended to clear land titles and there should be no exceptions to its extinguishment provisions other than those specifically set forth in the statute. Moreover, the Save Calusa opinion contains some imprecise language that restrictive covenants imposed by government do not constitute defects in marketable, a position rejected by most real estate practitioners. The landowners sought discretionary review in the Florida Supreme Court, but its petition was rejected.
It remains to be seen whether Save Calusa Street will be a “one-off” opinion that is limited to its facts, or whether later courts will adopt its view that government-approved restrictive covenants as being exempt from MRTA’s extinguishment provisions. Real estate practitioners are cautioned to be aware of the case and its facts as it has created uncertainty in the application of MRTA.