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Environmentalists ask DeSantis to veto bill that could stifle development challenges

In a letter Wednesday, they wrote part of the bill could stop advocates from suing to protect the Everglades in the future.

Environmental groups across the state are asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto a bill limiting what regulations local governments can set on new developments, saying a provision pertaining to legal fees could stop advocates from suing to protect the Everglades in the future.

HB 7103, which lawmakers passed on the final day of policymaking in this year’s session, restricts how local governments can implement inclusionary zoning regulations to require developers set aside a fraction of units for low income residents. Though local governments can still set such zoning policies, the bill requires that any costs to the developer associated with setting aside such housing be fully offset by incentives like bonuses or waived fees.

Another provision in the bill also requires those who lose development disputes in court pay both parties’ legal fees, which the Sierra Club and about 40 other local and statewide organizations are arguing will have a chilling effect on future efforts to protect the environment.

In a letter to DeSantis’ office Wednesday, the groups described lawsuits they have filed based on local comprehensive plans — which address issues like water quality and coastal management — and which they called a “critical tool that is used to ensure that Everglades restoration efforts are not further hindered.”

“HB 7103 will make a losing party, in consistency challenges, automatically liable for a prevailing party’s attorney fees,” the groups wrote. “If it becomes law, HB 7103 would effectively eliminate the only means left for Floridians to enforce consistency with local comprehensive plans, including those relevant to the protection and restoration of the Everglades.”

“In general, citizens who may bring challenges to defend against environmental threats, such as loss of wetlands that filter pollution and reduce flooding, do not have the same financial means as developers and/or local governments,” they added. “Citizen comprehensive plan challengers typically struggle just to cover their own attorney fees; the risk of having to pay the attorney fees of local governments and/or other intervening party would make challenges much less available to concerned citizens.”

During discussion of the bill in session, sponsor Rep. Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican, had called the attorneys’ fees provision necessary to discourage frivolous lawsuits. But in their letter, the groups argued that it was unneeded.

“Florida law already deters baseless legal challenges and prevents spurious litigation for improper purpose, such as undue delays of lawful development proposals,” they wrote, adding that the bill would also encourage courts to adopt shorter “summary procedures” that would limit discovery in legal cases. “Summary procedures are not appropriate for consistency challenges which involve complicated questions of law and fact and are often expert intensive.”

The bill has yet to be sent to DeSantis, who is currently on a trade mission to Israel. Under Florida law, DeSantis can only veto a bill in its entirety.