We have for review Metropolitan Dade County v. Dusseau, 725 So.2d 1169 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998), based on conflict with Education Development Center, Inc. v. City of West Palm Beach, 541 So.2d 106 (Fla. 1989). We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const. We approve in part and quash in part the decision in Dusseau as explained herein.
University Baptist Church owns 19.7 acres of land in Miami Dade County on which it seeks to build a large new church. The district is zoned for single-family one-acre estates, but churches are a permitted special exception. The project is opposed by Charles Dusseau and other local homeowners, who want just "a simple church." After exhaustive review, the project ultimately was approved by the following local agencies: the Zoning and Planning Department; the Department of Environmental Resources Management; the Public Works Department; the Water and Sewer Authority; the Fire Department; the Metro Dade Transit Agency; the School Board; the Solid Waste Department; the Parks Department; the Public Safety Department; and the Aviation Department. In spite of these approvals, the Zoning Appeals Board denied the application.
The County Commission heard testimony from both sides at a lengthy hearing and approved the project by a nine-to-two vote. The circuit court reversed, by a two-to-one vote. The court issued an eight-page majority opinion assessing the evidence presented by both sides and concluding as follows:
Dusseau v. Board of County Commissioners, No. 97-115-AP, slip op. at 8 (Fla. 11th Cir.Ct. May 22, 1998).
The district court granted certiorari and quashed the circuit court decision, ruling as follows:
Dusseau, 725 So.2d at 1171 (citation omitted). This Court granted review based on conflict with Education Development Center v. City of West Palm Beach, 541 So.2d 106 (Fla.1989), wherein the Court set forth the appropriate standards governing certiorari review.
II. THE APPLICABLE LAW
This Court recently addressed this issue in Florida Power & Light Co. v. City of Dania, 761 So.2d 1089 (Fla.2000), wherein the Court set forth the applicable law governing an application for a special exception:
Florida Power & Light, 761 So.2d at 1091-92.
This Court in Florida Power & Light further explained that once a local agency has ruled on an application for a special exception, the parties may seek review under the two-tiered certiorari system:
These two standards of certiorari review were clarified by this Court in City of Deerfield Beach v. Vaillant, 419 So.2d 624 (Fla.1982):
Florida Power & Light, 761 So.2d at 1092.
Although first- and second-tier certiorari review are similar in several respects, they are dissimilar in a key respect:
Florida Power & Light, 761 So.2d at 1092-93 (footnotes omitted).
III. THE PRESENT CASE
As noted above, although numerous local agencies recommended approval of the church's application, the Zoning Appeals Board denied the application. The Commission then conducted a lengthy hearing and approved the application. At the circuit court level, the court reviewed the record evidence on both sides and reversed the Commission's decision based on the following rationale: "[T]here was no competent substantial evidence that the church met the criteria for a special exception and there was competent substantial evidence that the church did not meet the
Although the circuit court phrased its reversal in terms of "competent substantial evidence," the plain language of its order shows that the court in fact reweighed the evidence, at length. Instead of simply reviewing the Commission's decision to determine whether it was supported by competent substantial evidence, the court also reviewed the decision to determine whether it was opposed by competent substantial evidence. The circuit court then substituted its judgment for that of the Commission as to the relative weight of the conflicting evidence. The circuit court thus usurped the fact-finding authority of the agency.
At the district court level, the court ruled as follows: "We find that the circuit court departed from the essential requirements of law when it reweighed evidence and completely ignored evidence that supports the Commission's ruling." Dusseau, 725 So.2d at 1171. This ruling was proper. The Court in Florida Power & Light explained:
Florida Power & Light, 761 So.2d at 1093.
The district court further stated: "[A] review of the evidence clearly demonstrates that the Commission's ruling was supported by competent substantial evidence...." Dusseau, 725 So.2d at 1171. This ruling was improper. Again, the Court in Florida Power & Light explained:
Florida Power & Light, 761 So.2d at 1093.
As in Florida Power & Light, we decline to conduct our own review of the present record to determine whether the Commission's decision is supported by competent substantial evidence, "for to do so would perpetuate the district court's error and usurp the first-tier certiorari jurisdiction of the circuit court."
We reiterate that the "competent substantial evidence" standard cannot be used by a reviewing court as a mechanism for
The sole issue before the court on first-tier certiorari review is whether the agency's decision is lawful. The court's task vis-a-vis the third prong of Vaillant is simple: The court must review the record to assess the evidentiary support for the agency's decision. Evidence contrary to the agency's decision is outside the scope of the inquiry at this point, for the reviewing court above all cannot reweigh the "pros and cons" of conflicting evidence. While contrary evidence may be relevant to the wisdom of the decision, it is irrelevant to the lawfulness of the decision. As long as the record contains competent substantial evidence to support the agency's decision, the decision is presumed lawful and the court's job is ended.
Based on the foregoing, we approve in part and quash in part Board of County Commissioners v. Dusseau, 725 So.2d 1169 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998), as explained herein.
It is so ordered.
WELLS, C.J., and HARDING, ANSTEAD, LEWIS, and QUINCE, JJ., concur.
PARIENTE, J., concurs with an opinion, in which ANSTEAD and LEWIS, JJ., concur.
PARIENTE, J., concurring.
The majority focuses on the standards of appellate review of a zoning decision regarding a special exception, relying on our previous decision in Florida Power & Light Co. v. City of Dania, 761 So.2d 1089 (Fla.2000). See majority op. at 1273-74. I write to make several observations about the nature of that appellate review, given that we begin with the premise that the reviewing court should give deference to the "agency's superior technical expertise and special vantage point." Id. at 1276.
The majority explains that the role of the circuit court, as the first-tier reviewing body, is to "review the record to assess the evidentiary support for the agency's decision." Id. I have no difficulty with the notion that the circuit court as a reviewing body should defer to the agency's superior expertise and vantage point. However, I share Judge Zehmer's observations in Irvine v. Duval County Planning Commission, 466 So.2d 357, 366 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985) (Zehmer, J., dissenting), as to the commensurate obligations of the agency to make written findings of fact and the reason for those obligations:
This Court subsequently adopted Judge Zehmer's dissenting opinion concerning the allocations of burdens in a special exception zoning case, but the Court did not discuss Judge Zehmer's observations concerning the necessity of written findings. See Irvine v. Duval County Planning Comm'n, 495 So.2d 167 (Fla.1986).
In this case, although the Commission provided a written resolution reversing the Zoning Appeals Board, the resolution contained no written factual findings. Although the lack of written findings is not fatal to appellate review based on this Court's current precedent, written findings would greatly assist the reviewing court in performing its more limited appellate role. Further, if the reviewing court was able to ascertain how the agency arrived at its decision, it would avoid any temptation on the part of the reviewing court to reweigh the evidence. If the agency's factual findings were legally sufficient to support a given decision and were supported by competent substantial evidence in the record, there would be no necessity for the reviewing court to explore the record to attempt to find what facts do support the agency's decision.
In this case, I would further point out that the circuit court sat in a three-judge panel that produced a reasoned and detailed majority and dissent. This in turn facilitated the more limited second-tier review of the Third District as well as this Court's review of the Third District's decision. We previously have noted the disparity of the practices among circuits and referred this matter to the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee for study. See Florida Power & Light, 761 So.2d at 1094. In light of the far-reaching impact of zoning decisions, we should not continue to sanction a statewide system that allows a single circuit judge to have the identical appellate reviewing authority as a three-judge panel and that also requires the district court of appeal to accord the identical deference to the circuit court's decision regardless of whether the decision
ANSTEAD and LEWIS, JJ., concur.