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Nelson Symposium talks about the squeeze on local governments

by Spenser Solis and Andre Salhab
Student Writers


Michael A. Wolf, UF Law’s Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law, speaks to students and lawyers at the Eighth Annual Richard E. Nelson Symposium on Friday. (UF Law/ Charles Roop)

The Eighth Annual Richard E. Nelson Symposium brought together top legal experts to discuss challenges and proposed solutions to the multitude of problems faced by local governments. More than 100 legal professionals and law students attended the day-long event, which took place at the UF Hilton Conference Center on Feb. 13.

The conference, titled “The Squeeze on Local Governments,” included presentations from experts in topics ranging from land-use, local government, property and environmental law.

“This year’s topic has particularly special meaning,” said Dean Robert Jerry in a welcome address. “Local governments are being hammered by economic forces.”

Michael A. Wolf, UF Law’s Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law, organized the conference. Florida has faced high rates of foreclosure and abandonment of homes, Wolf said.

“When the real estate bubble burst a year ago, the Sunshine State was hit particularly hard,” he said.

Government’s use of eminent domain to seize private property for economic development has elicited a variety of responses throughout the country.

“State and federal courts have sent mixed signals,” Wolf said.

Frank S. Alexander, a professor of law at Emory Law School, described the impact of the foreclosure crisis on state and local governments. Foreclosures increase costs for local governments because they can bring with them instances of vandalism, arson and copper theft.

“A single foreclosure will reduce the value of properties within a half mile by 2.5 percent,” he said.

Alexander suggested that local governments provide short-term leases to reoccupy vacant property.

“No one is maintaining the property post foreclosure,” he said. “The most important thing, I think, is to get them reoccupied.”


Robert Guthrie, senior assistant county attorney for Orange County, Fla., outlined his county’s plans to use federal funding to purchase foreclosed structures. (UF Law/ Lauren Jannelle)

Alexander is optimistic that the housing market is not far from the bottom.

“The foreclosure wave is decelerating,” he said. “What I don’t know is how long it’s going to take to really go up.”

Diana Anderson (1L), a student in Wolf’s property course, found Alexander’s speech to be particularly helpful.

“The housing crisis is a serious concern, thinking about where you live,” Anderson said.

Anderson, who is interested in criminal law, said the issues surrounding foreclosures don’t just affect property lawyers.

“The foreclosure rates do have effects on vandalism and criminal issues,” she said.

Robert Guthrie, senior assistant county attorney for Orange County, Fla., outlined his county’s plans to use federal funding to purchase foreclosed structures.

Through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), Orange County will improve troubled homes by coordinating with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

“We can dole these out to non-profits and let them be responsible for the improvements,” Guthrie said.

John D. Echeverria, executive director of the Georgetown Environmental Law & Policy Institute and a professor at Vermont Law School, explained the implications of Florida’s Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Protection Act.

The act, designed to curtail government encroachment on property rights, has dramatically weakened the government’s ability to regulate property, he said.

“The Bert Harris Act is a contributing cause to the real estate crisis here in Florida,” Echeverria said.

Central to the issue of government’s role in economic development is the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. The 2005 decision allows for the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another to further economic development.

States have responded to Kelo in a variety of ways, said James W. Ely, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School.

“The picture is kaleidoscopic in nature,” he said. “It is constantly changing.”

The most common problem with regards to eminent domain abuse is a failure to curtail “blight taking,” Ely said.

“To the common mind, ‘blight’ suggests a dilapidated neighborhood,” he said. “In fact, some states define it as ‘any condition that impedes economic growth.’”


Tara Nelson (2L), who serve as a research assistant for Wolf, discussed recent constitutional amendments. (UF Law/ Lauren Jannelle)

Following Ely’s speech, UF students Tara Nelson (2L) and Andrea Becker (2L), who serve as research assistants for Wolf, discussed recent constitutional amendments and case law developments, respectively, and their implications for state and local governments.

Gregory Stewart, a UF undergrad and law student (a double Gator), started off a discussion of Florida Supreme Court cases.

Stewart, who was selected as one of “The Best Lawyers in America” in the specialty of municipal law, discussed the Strand v. Escambia County case. The case was a bond violation proceeding in which the county prevailed in the trial courts. Ultimately, the decision was overturned in the Florida Supreme Court.

"This didn't go over very well," said Stewart. "Numerous entities filed for a reconsideration (rehearing)."

The Florida Supreme Court's previous ruling was revised approximately a year later.

Kent Safriet, a shareholder at Hopping Green & Sam, was one of the last speakers of the day. He opened up his discussion with a joke that got the audience laughing.

"Although I'm not a double Gator, I do hail from the place where the ball coach (Steve Spurrier) is now," he joked.

Safriet discussed beach erosion and how it pertained to the Walton County v. Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. case. In order to make the information easier to understand, he used graphics and diagrams to explain some of the key elements of the case. Throughout the presentation, Safriet showed that he didn't completely agree with the Florida Supreme Court’s decision.

"The Florida Supreme Court, as we know from other presentations, can be less than stable," Safriet said.

The event ended in a panel discussion led by Professor Wolf. He asked three questions, which any of the panelists could answer. The panelists had some laughs and disagreements but everyone seemed to enjoy the chance to converse with each other.

Before leaving, Wolf felt compelled to say one last thing, making him the second speaker to mention football.

"At least he (Tim Tebow) will be back for one more year," said Wolf, wanting to give everyone something to which to look forward.