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Nancy Smith

Attorney Richard Grosso's Enviro-Terrorist Game Busted! Thanks, 1st District COA

December 18, 2010 - 6:00pm

Forget their pricey new digs for a minute, let's look at something the judges of the 1st District Court of Appeal did right.

Their job.

Last week they drew a line in the sand. They finally imposed sanctions on at least one attorney -- and there are many in Florida -- who almost routinely uses the courts as a tactical weapon to settle a political score or carry out a political vendetta.

Attorney Richard Grosso and his Treasure Coast clients, 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance, got their collective kiester kicked. They're going to have to pay the court and attorney costs of everybody involved in the appeal -- Martin County, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and various development interests. The bill likely will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

No wonder Grosso hasn't returned my phone calls.

It was the usual sort of throw-up-roadblocks, delay-and-win case for Grosso. Only the result was different.

In 2007 Martin County dared to reduce the minimum lot size on 191,000 agricultural acres in western Martin County from 20 to 2 acres. The idea was to pave the way for clustered development.

Clustered development is an avenue for saving green space and allowing rural property owners to trade large parcels for development credits. It's almost universally considered a good and ecological thing, and sound policy to help the damaged Everglades. It also is the darling of savvy land planners and environmental groups throughout the country. Even 1000 Friends of Florida loves it.

Make that the 1000 Friends everywhere except in Martin County, where Grosso hangs out and does so much of his business.

He and his clients filed a legal challenge to reverse Martin's decision because it doesn't establish standards for protecting environmentally sensitive lands.

But the administrative law judge who heard the case told Grosso no dice, the change won't create urban sprawl or more development because homes would be clustered on smaller lots with open space set aside for agriculture, conservation or parks.

Grosso and his client groups -- most of them, incidentally, led by former county commissioners voted out of office years ago -- weren't discouraged by that. They're accustomed to using the judiciary without impugnity to get their own way. So they moved their case forward to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

And what happened? For the first time in all the years I've seen him pull these costly, delay-and-win legal stunts, Grosso got his knuckles rapped.

Not only did the three-member appeals court panel tell Grosso the county's decision was perfectly OK, that it would not add more housing units, the court told him that the challenge was frivolous and ordered that he and his clients pay every penny of court costs and attorney fees for all parties involved.

Last week, when reporters asked him to comment, he replied, "No one will seek to enforce (the Growth Management Act) any more out of fear of sanctions for attorney fees."

Maybe the COA's ruling sets a precedent, maybe Grosso is full of baloney.

I can only tell you that Martin County is my old stomping ground. Grosso's work is more than familiar to me. Believe me when I say, what he's doing isn't seeking to enforce the Growth Management Act, he's using the law to terrorize local government, to tie it in legal knots, to harass perceived enemies, to delay projects he and his clients don't want.

The idea is to scare off lawsuit-weary, fiscally conservative local government officials from making any growth management decision not initiated by his clients. Or to demonize and punish them if they do.

Now, I'm not entirely sure who is paying Grosso's fees. But I do know that Martin County staff works on the taxpayers' dime. And I know that in 2002, staff spent literally thousands of hours researching and preparing a defense of the economic element of its comprehensive plan because Grosso and his clients didn't like it. And I know in 2003 whenhe and his clients tried to steal 2,800 acres of land from developer Tom Kenny, supposedly for Everglades restoration, Kenny paid dearly to keep Grosso from trespassing.

The truth is, Grosso has had his hands in Martin County's pockets for more than 10 years. Until the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling, I wondered if anybody was ever going to question the frivolity of keeping a county legal department buried in growth management issues that, at their core, have nothing whatever to do with growth management -- and aren't actually issues at all, but opportunities to unseat a county commission majority Grosso & Friends don't like.

Here's the problem with Grosso: He's got a foolproof game. He's got the environment. You fight him and you're an enemy of nature. At least, that's the perception. First he represented something called the Environment and Land Use Law Center. Now it's the Everglades Law Center. Face it, names like that not only help you raise money, they help you grow a Teflon shell.

You just can't be a bad guy when you're out there fighting to save the environment ... which truly is Grosso's mystique.

I hope the judges of the 1st District Court of Appeal mean to set a trend with this case, and if asked to rehear it -- which I'm sure they will be -- will stick to their guns, making sure the sanctions stick and telling attorney Richard Grosso a second time -- no. Absolutely, utterly no.


Reach Nancy Smith at nancybutlersmith@yahoo.com, or at (850) 727-0859.

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