Who’s behind a thorny Florida property rights bill? A real estate empire

It would bolster a law critics say is a hurdle to protecting the environment.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, sits at the Capitol in Tallahassee during session earlier this month.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, sits at the Capitol in Tallahassee during session earlier this month. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 16, 2021|Updated March 16, 2021

A bill in the Florida Legislature that would bolster a state property rights law — one critics say already scares local governments away from protecting the environment — was written by representatives of a major development business that has donated to its Senate sponsor.

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said he worked with a lobbyist for the Barron Collier Companies and Collier Enterprises Management to draft the proposal. An email shows a lobbyist passed along draft language from an executive at Barron Collier Companies, one branch of a real estate and investment empire that traces back to Collier County’s namesake.

“They wrote it,” Rodrigues said. “I approached the lobbyist and said I’m interested in doing something with this area.”

The bill would change the language in Florida’s Bert Harris Act, which goes beyond the U.S. Constitution to protect property owners against governments that “inordinately burden” their ability to benefit from their land. The concept is rooted in the idea that the state cannot take a citizen’s property without providing fair compensation.

If the bill passes, it will specify that the law applies to property found underground, including mineral rights. One Collier family business manages the rights to oil reserves found below Big Cypress National Preserve, where rigs operate to the frustration of environmentalists. The Colliers make money from leases with companies that extract the oil, including an operator that recently applied to build new wellpads in the Preserve.

Representatives of the Collier companies did not return multiple calls requesting comment. The lobbyist, Andy Palmer of Metz, Husband & Daughton PA, did not return a phone call, email or text messages.

Rodrigues said he sees the bill as clarifying but not expanding property rights protections. Mineral rights, he said, would have been covered under the Act all along, but he’d “rather the legislature make its intent clear.”

Opponents, though, are focusing on a different provision they say could open up more opportunities for aggrieved landowners to sue their local governments.

The Bert Harris Act has typically been invoked when a government decision specifically affects an individual property, said Jane West, policy and planning director for the growth management advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida. That means someone could bring a challenge if they were denied a permit, or if a local ordinance directly applied to operations on their land. Under the revisions, West said, people could bring challenges as soon as a policy is adopted, even before it really touches their property. That might spur an uptick in expensive lawsuits for counties and cities, West said.

“The threat of litigation causes a chilling effect” that stops officials from approving policies to curb development, she said. “There’s a difference between property rights and being able to do whatever the heck you want with that piece of land.”

Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, recalled how the Act was invoked years ago by a phosphate mining company in Manatee County after officials sided against a planned expansion. The company filed suit for hundreds of millions of dollars, and the county later flipped its position.

“Large landowners and corporations wield Bert Harris as a sword,” Lopez said, before adjusting her words: “A sword makes it sound too noble. It’s a grenade.”

She noted that the Colliers are political donors who have supported Rodrigues’ election. Campaign finance records show Collier businesses gave him $7,000 between 2019 and 2020 and $5,000 to his political committee March 1.

“It’s irrelevant who asked whom first,” Lopez said. “The fact that he went to them, specifically them on mineral rights, is no coincidence.” The Center for Biological Diversity has opposed drilling in Big Cypress.

A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve in 2008.
A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve in 2008. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Rodrigues disputed that money had anything to do with him asking the Collier lobbyist for help. “My last campaign cost $1.5 million,” he said. Anyone who believes a few thousand dollars could hold sway over him, he said, is wrong.

“They don’t understand the process either,” Rodrigues said. In a text message, he later wrote: “I fail to understand how changing the timing of when litigation can be filed will lead to the result of more litigation being filed.”

One of Rodrigues’ goals, he said, is to preempt local efforts to ban fracking before a provision passes in an area with oil or gas, where he believes a landowner could bring a Bert Harris case that costs tax dollars to settle.

“It protects property rights, it protects property owners, it protects taxpayers,” he said.

The House companion to the bill is being led by Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Fort Myers. She did not reply to emails seeking comment, nor voice messages at her private law office and her Capitol office.

The bill has not been brought before a committee in the Senate, but the House version passed through the Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee last week. Democrats opposed the idea, concerned about a staff analysis that reported it “expands the scope of the Bert Harris Act,” despite Persons-Mulicka assuring otherwise.

In the same analysis, a staffer wrote: “The bill ... may have an indeterminate negative fiscal impact on local governments.”

The ramifications would expand beyond the environment, said David Cruz, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, which opposes the bill. Other ordinances, like an effort to restrict short-term rentals such as Airbnbs, Cruz said, could also be subject to challenges under the revised Act.

“All land use regulations would be second-guessed by local governments,” he said.