Lawmakers want to up the stakes for Floridians who challenge local development plans

Proponents say change is needed to expedite development. Opponents warn it will lead to sprawl.
Storm clouds form over the Florida Everglades in this 2021 photo.
Storm clouds form over the Florida Everglades in this 2021 photo. [ PHIL SANDLIN | AP ]
Published May 3|Updated May 4

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators took another step toward removing citizen input on Tuesday as the House passed and sent to the governor a bill that will put citizens on the hook for attorneys fees if they challenge a local government development decision and lose.

Proponents say it’s a needed change to expedite development in a fast-growing state. But growth management advocates warn the measure will be the “death knell for smart growth in Florida” that will lead to expensive sprawl and water shortages, exacerbate flooding and impede Everglades restoration efforts.

With little debate, the Florida House approved 87-30 and sent to the governor SB 540, sponsored by Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, and Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville.

“This bill continues a pattern of making it more difficult for citizens to challenge legitimately bad development in their communities,” said Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, when urging her colleagues to reject the bill on Tuesday. “When citizens are aggrieved by a new development in their area and cannot work with their local authorities, sometimes their only recourse is the legal system.”

If approved, the bill will require anyone who challenges a local government for violating the community’s comprehensive growth plan and loses to pay the attorneys fees and costs of both the developers and the government.

Environmental advocates are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto it.

Everglades restoration may be at risk

They argue it will lead to development that could encroach on the multibillion-dollar taxpayer-funded restoration of the Everglades, and is in conflict with the governor’s Executive Order 23-06 that directs state and local officials “to improve local government long-term comprehensive planning that ensures sustainable growth while protecting our natural resources.”

“There are a lot of bad bills this year, but this is one of the worst growth management bills ever facing the State of Florida,” said Jane West, policy and planning director of the smart growth advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida. “This is a very heavy-handed approach by the Legislature to benefit developers.”

On Tuesday, 1000 Friends of Florida organized an online petition urging the governor to veto the bill and, within 12 hours, it had more than 750 signatures. Also opposing the bill is the Florida Everglades Coalition, which is comprised of dozens of environmental and advocacy groups.

“It goes against sound comprehensive planning,” said Gil Smart, executive director of the VoteWater advocacy group. “Full participation by affected citizens is a key component of that comprehensive planning.”

Since 2011, when the state dismantled the former Department of Community Affairs, which protected from development the state’s natural areas of critical state concern, citizen challenges to development plans have been the only tool the public had to force non-compliant local governments to adhere to a community’s growth blueprint, known as a comprehensive plan.

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Under current law, each party bears its own fees and costs but, if this becomes law, the challenger “may be faced with tens of thousands and possibly in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” West warned.

The sponsors of the measure, however, say it simply “evens the playing field” for both opponents of sprawl and developers. DiCeglie told the Senate Rules Committee last month that local governments already hold numerous public hearings and provide sufficient public input before decisions are made.

“There are multiple opportunities for the public” to voice their support or opposition for any of these comprehensive plans or the amendments, he said.

Many current lawsuits could be dropped

Because the bill does not include a grandfather provision for existing lawsuits, West warned that dozens of current lawsuits that have been in the legal pipeline for years could be impacted if governments and developers retroactively seek to have the fees paid by the challengers — most often coalitions of citizen and environmental groups.

That could result in the groups deciding to dismiss dozens of pending lawsuits because the growth advocates cannot afford the cost, West said.

“Millions of dollars would be on the hook,” said Laura Reynolds, director of the Hold the Line Coalition, which aims to stop urban sprawl in Miami-Dade County. “There’s no way any of us would take that risk.”

Among the lawsuits that could be dismissed is one from developers in Miami-Dade that last year challenged a Department of Environmental Protection ruling that the county commission waited too long in approving the expansion of the Urban Development Boundary.

A previous version of the bill included a provision to retroactively change a state law to benefit the developers and end the lawsuit, but the lawsuit is still pending.

Development interests have for years sought to weaken citizen involvement in local government development decisions because the process can stall progress and impede profits.

Environmental advocates said Wednesday they fear that if the bill becomes law it will lead to more development in low-lying coastal high hazard areas so that landowners can profit before the land is consumed by rising seas.

“It sure looks like there is a mad rush to develop some of the last remaining green space in South Florida in low-lying areas while it can still be developed and insured,” said Eve Samples, executive director of the Friends of the Everglades.

Reynolds said by losing “the last tool in our toolbox,” groups will have no leverage to encourage developers to increase urban density to preserve drinking water resources, protect wetlands, encourage public transit, build energy-efficient communities and manage flooding.

“There will be unbridled development and no solutions to the climate crisis,” Reynolds predicted. “It is much cheaper to protect the land in low-lying areas from development than to come back in after there is a storm.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Laura Reynolds is director of Hold the Line Coalition.

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