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Matt Gaetz wins appeal for northwest Florida skydiving business

Congressman Matt Gaetz, also an attorney, has won an appeal that should allow a Walton County couple to continue operating a skydiving business on their 290-acre farm near Paxton.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal issued its unanimous decision Tuesday for James and Melanie Nipper.

He “had a distinguished career as a U.S. Army Paratrooper and member of the elite Golden Knights parachute team from 1981-1997;” she “was an Army pilot,” the opinion said. They have since retired from the military.

County officials earlier had gotten a lower court order barring the Nippers from running “Skydive North Florida” at their farm, saying “it violated the County’s zoning code.”

The county had “determined that the use of the property as a commercial skydiving business violated (land) uses allowed in a Large Scale Agricultural District (in) which the Plaintiffs’ property is located,” according to the opinion.

But Judges Timothy D. Osterhaus, Brad Thomas and Stephanie W. Ray said the county “did not show a clear legal right” to ban the Nippers from running a skydiving operation.

The opinion cited the county’s land use policy, saying that language allowing outdoor recreational activities but not specifically banning skydiving “indicates that skydiving may be permissible.”

“No one denies that skydiving is an outdoor recreational activity,” the court said.

Gaetz, a Republican who was in the state House and now represents northwest Florida’s 1st Congressional District, had been with the Fort Walton Beach firm of Keefe, Anchors & Gordon.

In a brief interview, James Nipper said he appreciated the decision: “Justice was served.”

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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