Statewide leadership in environmental and land use law
|Kenneth Dodge, Andrew Baumann, |
Michelle Diffenderfer and Stephen Walker
It’s not easy to find the right balance between protecting Florida’s fragile natural resources, supporting agricultural producers, and developing well-planned residential and commercial projects to accommodate the state’s growing population.
For more than 20 years, the attorneys at Lewis, Longman & Walker, P.A. (LLW) have been statewide leaders in environmental, land use and government law, helping public and private clients navigate complex, long-term issues.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to work on challenging matters that are shaping Florida’s future,” says Michelle Diffenderfer, shareholder and president of LLW. “Our firm understands the large-scale environmental issues, and we have the knowledge and experience to address the specific technical, permitting and entitlement challenges facing our clients.”
Today, LLW has offices strategically located in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and West Palm Beach. Of the 32 attorneys in the firm, five are board-certified in the areas of state and federal government and administrative practice; real estate; and city, county and local government law.
“Our firm’s tagline is “See Things Differently” which is a mantra LLW attorneys try to live out each day–bringing a different perspective to their work while striving to identify creative, win-win solutions,” says Diffenderfer.
A Focus on Balance
A desire to take control of their legal destiny led Terry E. Lewis, R. Steven Lewis, Anne Longman and Stephen A. Walker to found LLW in 1994 as a spinoff from a Tallahassee-based firm. “Our group began to focus on environmental law, and we had a strong sense of what we wanted to achieve,” says Walker, a former managing shareholder.
To represent the firm’s values, they chose the Florida slash pine to be part of its logo, noting on the firm’s website: “The slash pine is very sensitive to changes in its surroundings, and reminds us to consider the natural environment as we build for the future.”
The co-founders also spent time defining the firm’s core values and how they wanted to practice law. “Our first rule is ‘no jerks,’” says Kenneth W. Dodge, shareholder. “We all spend so much time with our co-workers, we want attorneys and staff members that enjoy collaborating with each other.”
Andrew J. Baumann, a shareholder who joined the firm a decade ago as an associate with government experience, added that many of the firm’s matters are so complex they require a team effort. “A lone wolf would not fit in well with our environment,” he adds.
Serving the Public and Private Sector
For more than 20 years, LLW has served clients in both the public and private sectors. That diversification helped the firm weather the 2008-09 recession when private development projects dried up. “We walk the middle line and assiduously avoid conflicts.” says Walker.
Through the years, the firm has represented numerous municipalities, government agencies, the state’s five water management districts and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. For example, LLW’s attorneys helped the Broward County Aviation Department win approvals for its South Runway project at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and assisted the Seminole Tribe with the expansion of its Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Coconut Creek. Baumann has represented St. Lucie County on numerous environmental issues, such as excavating beach sand for transport to Miami, and advising on projects at the Port of Fort Pierce.
In some cases, the firm’s attorneys serve as general or special counsel for South Florida cities, handing issues like pension-related matters. As general counsel for the Boynton Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), Dodge has helped “clean up” the post-recession foreclosure legal work. “Now, there are viable projects underway and real estate activity is back to a normal level.” he adds.
On the private side, the firm assists residential builders and commercial developers on complicated land use, zoning and entitlement issues related to their transactions. “We have a long history with many large-scale projects, and have often represented multiple developers over the course of a project,” says Baumann.
Since the recession, some of the large national builders have been selling off their land holdings due to earning pressure from Wall Street, adds Baumann. “That has created opportunities for smaller, entrepreneurial developers to take on those projects,” he says. “Since market conditions have changed since the last boom, those developers are now making adjustments in their plans, such as moving from commercial to multifamily uses or removing a golf course from a master-planned development to include more residences.”
Water Management Issues
Throughout Florida, LLW is known for its knowledge and experience in addressing water management issues, including wetlands conservation, drinking water supplies, and pollution discharge permits. The firm’s water-related environmental experience includes coastal navigation issues, dredging, seawalls, drainage and underground pipelines, as well.
“We were there right at the beginning of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project,” says Walker, who served on the South Florida Water Management District prior to co-founding the firm. Another original partner, Wayne Flowers, who now leads LLW’s Jacksonville office, was a general counsel for the St. Johns River Management District.
“Today, a lot of our legal work centers on the Everglades for a variety of clients,” Walker adds. “For instance, the Seminole Tribe wanted to know what this vast restoration project would mean to their land, and we wanted to be sure their voice was heard in the planning process.”
The firm also assists the City of West Palm Beach in issues related to its surface water system, including two large reservoirs near I-95.
“While water supply is an important consideration throughout our state, South Florida is not in danger of running out of water,” says Diffenderfer. “There are underground storage and recovery options, as well as reverse osmosis technology, which may become necessary as our aquifers become more salty. But all these solutions are likely to increase water costs.”
When it comes to water, Walker says Florida has one big legal advantage over California, which is closing irrigation systems and restricting other uses because of severe drought conditions. “Unlike the West, where water rights were allocated on a permanent basis to users who would pay the most, Florida has a more flexible system,” he says. “When consumption permits come up for renewal, other users can compete for those rights. That also gives water management districts the ability to maintain minimum flows and levels to protect wetlands or to save an endangered species.”
The Next Generation
In recent years, the firm’s founders have stepped back to cultivate the next generation of leaders, like Diffenderfer, who started as a law clerk and moved up to associate and shareholder. “As president, I want to make sure that LLW is well-positioned for the future,” she says. “Our founders are all active in their practices, working as hard as our new associates. But we want to remain a statewide leader long after Lewis, Longman and Walker have all retired.”
South Florida Legal Guide 2016 Edition