Dozens of bills from this year’s Florida legislative session became law on Saturday, but environmental activists say one law in particular has been hiding in the shadow of high-profile bills like permitless carry and new immigration legislation.
SB 540, dubbed the “sprawl bill” by opponents, provides for prevailing party attorney fees in challenges to local governments’ comprehensive plan amendments. This means citizens who take issue with their city’s plan change will have to foot the bill if they lose a legal battle to developers and local governments.
Environmental groups worry rushed comprehensive plan amendments could negatively impact affordable housing, conservation efforts and even hurricane evacuation routes in some communities.
A petition from 1000 Friends of Florida, a “smart-growth” nonprofit, garnered more than 5,700 signatures before DeSantis signed the bill into law last month. After DeSantis signed the measure into law, Friends of the Everglades called it “the worst environmental bill passed by the Florida Legislature during the 2023 session” and “a death knell for smart growth in Florida.”
Comprehensive plans act as a local constitution for environmentally and fiscally sustainable growth, said Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida.
“This bill did not get the attention that it warranted this legislative session because the culture wars were sucking the oxygen out of the room,” West said. “Under normal circumstances, we would have been able to rally the state behind this.”
West said comprehensive plan changes are usually initiated by a developer, which used to be allowed only twice each year.
“Now, it’s almost every single month at a local government county commission hearing,” West said.
In 2011, then-Gov. Rick Scott eliminated the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which took away the state’s power to block local comprehensive plan amendments. Now, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity can only comment on or object to these changes.
Since 2020, the agency has used this limited power on just 6% of the nearly 2,000 proposed comprehensive plan amendments, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
“A lot is slipping through the cracks,” West said.
West said local government officials like county commissioners often don’t have any city planning expertise.
“You’re leaving it to these folks who don’t have any training in planning, don’t have the training in understanding the fiscal implications of how expensive sprawl is,” she said.
West is worried that attorney fees could have a chilling effect on plan amendment pushback, effectively halting lawsuits brought by concerned citizens.
“Do you really think they’re going to do that when they now have to not only pay for their own attorney, but the local government’s attorney and developer’s attorney who frequently bills out at rates of $800 to $1,200 an hour?” West said.
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State Sen. Nick DiCeglie, an Indian Rocks Beach Republican who sponsored the bill, said there isn’t an incentive for developers to drive up attorney fees.
“I don’t buy that scenario,” DiCeglie said.
He said this attorney rate hike is already a tactic used by local governments against developers during plan amendment lawsuits. The law will “level the playing field” for developers going up against local governments with large tax bases who might stretch out the time of the lawsuit and rack up expensive attorney fees, according to DiCeglie.
DiCeglie said lawsuits over plan amendments are often “frivolous” because citizens are given the chance to object to these changes during public comment before amendments are passed.
He said people need to be more involved in their local elections if they don’t like the plan amendments that are being passed.
“There’s always an election around the corner where they can make those changes and, ultimately, attempt to elect someone who is more aligned with those principles in their view of what their community looks like in the future,” he said.
DiCeglie said he has heard the outcry from the environmental community about this law, but that he doesn’t see any harmful consequences.
“If there’s any issues with any legislation that we’ve passed, we’re always willing to come back and make sure that what we do is right,” DiCeglie said. “But I think that this is a solid piece of legislation and, you know, obviously the governor agrees with that.”
West said this law conflicts with DeSantis’ pledge to protect the Everglades under sustainable growth in Florida.
“If you are making decisions that are dismantling the ability for the state and local governments to effectively regulate sprawl, then you are singlehandedly impairing water quality in the state,” she said.
“You can’t say, ‘Save the Everglades,’ throw a lot of money at it, and then allow a bill that will allow for development right up against the Everglades. That just doesn’t work.”