Environmental groups are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto legislation they contend will have a “chilling effect” on efforts to limit sprawl in Florida.
DeSantis has until Wednesday to act upon a bill (SB 540) that in part allows “prevailing” parties to recover legal fees in comprehensive growth-management plan challenges at the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
Bill supporters have said local governments hold numerous public hearings before comprehensive-plan changes are approved, giving people an opportunity to have input.
But more than 60 groups, including the Everglades Coalition, fiercely oppose the plan, arguing that the threat of facing hefty legal costs would dissuade environmental organizations and other people from challenging comprehensive growth-management plan changes.
“What citizen could possibly bring a challenge with the threat of bankruptcy looming,” Friends of the Everglades Executive Director Eve Samples said Tuesday during a recap of the 2023 legislative session, which ended May 5.
“We already have provisions in state law to prevent frivolous lawsuits,” Samples continued. “That’s not what this is about. This is about greasing the skids for developers who are pushing to develop some of the last remaining and low-lying green spaces in Florida.”
Inhibiting the public’s willingness to challenge the actions of local governments likely will result in “a situation of sprawl that will be unprecedented,” predicted Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida. West’s group has gathered more than 4,100 signatures asking DeSantis to veto the bill. Friends of the Everglades has collected another 2,800 signatures urging a veto.
During debate on the measure last month, Senate bill sponsor Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, suggested that people who object to comprehensive-plan changes should work to elect new local officials instead of filing legal challenges.
“There are sometimes up to nine opportunities for a citizen to express either support or not support for a comprehensive plan or a comprehensive plan amendment,” DiCeglie said on April 19.
DiCeglie acknowledged that “sometimes local governments will make a mistake.
“And when that happens, that is an appropriate time for someone to file suit and to challenge that. … The problem I think we have,” he added, “Some folks who go through that process and tell the government they don’t like this comprehensive plan or amendment nine or 10 times, they’ll say, ‘Well, you know what, we’re going to continue on and file a lawsuit.’ My view, the best way to deal with local governments and comprehensive plans that you don’t like is usually at the ballot box.”
House bill sponsor Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, argued most challenges are brought by groups that just oppose the local government actions.
“If you just don’t like the decision that the local government made, which in many instances is the basis of these challenges, then you’re already taking on an uphill climb against their resources,” Duggan said when the bill was before the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on March 9. “And perhaps, I would submit, this really isn’t the forum or venue for you to try and pursue that policy change.”
The bill, approved 29-10 in the Senate and 87-30 in the House, also narrows challenges that can be brought forward to “use, density, or intensity” impacts to a comprehensive plan.
Jim Turner – News Service of Florida