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  1. Opinion

Making losers pay opponents' costs undercuts Florida's Growth Management Act | Column

Two days after he took office, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an ambitious executive order dedicated to "achieving more now for Florida's environment." Its highlights included a big boost in spending on Everglades restoration and water quality.

Legislators went on to approve a budget giving the governor even more money in those categories than he requested. But they also passed a bill, HB 7103, with an insidious amendment that will undercut the green goals they advanced with their spending plan.

If they truly care about Florida's environment — and their constituents' power to protect it — legislators will repeal this amendment at their first opportunity.

Like most politicians, legislators tend to be reluctant to reopen policy debates. But this amendment, introduced on the Senate floor by St. Petersburg's Jeff Brandes, was never debated. It was not considered in any of the six committees to which HB 7103 and its Senate counterpart were referred. It was never subjected to scrutiny and discussion from committee members, or analysis from their staffs, or public testimony. It was unveiled just three days before the end of the session, with legislators under the gun to finish their work on time.

It's not a stretch to argue the amendment could strike a mortal blow to the system created by the Growth Management Act of 1985. That law wisely stipulated that all local governments adopt and maintain a comprehensive plan to guide their growth, and that all actions they take in authorizing development must be consistent with their plans. Those plans serve many vital objectives, including environmental protection. Plans address a broad range of growth-related policies and services fundamental to protecting a community's water supply and other natural resources.

State law allows citizens to seek a court order invalidating a development order if it is inconsistent with a governing comprehensive plan. This cause of action, the consistency challenge, is the only legal mechanism left to challenge development orders that do not follow a local government's plan.

And here's how the Brandes amendment blows up this system: It forces losing parties in consistency challenges to pay the opposing party's attorney fees and costs. This will effectively end citizen enforcement of city and county comprehensive plans. Those who can only defend their interests by filing suit simply can't take the risk of losing a close case and having to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local government or an intervening party.

It's doubtful that most legislators grasped the full, disastrous consequences of the Brandes amendment absent any analysis or discussion. Would a majority of them knowingly stack the deck against citizens in community planning disputes? Would they wittingly eviscerate growth management amid Florida's relentlessly rising population, its rapidly disappearing natural lands and its ongoing water quality crisis?

If either answer is no, legislators will waste no time in repealing the amendment.

Paul Owens is president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit advocate of managing growth to protect Florida's environment, economy and quality of life.

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