Last-minute legislative amendment penalizes anyone who challenges Florida development

Bonita Springs. Google Earth

A longtime watchdog group is warning that legislation soon heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk would gut enforcement of Florida’s 1985 Growth Management Act, a landmark law intended to make sure local governments properly plan for development’s impacts.

HB 7103, approved in the closing days of the 2019 legislative session, would ban local governments from requiring developers to include affordable housing within their projects. What most worries 1000 Friends of Florida is an amendment that says anyone who sues to enforce local comprehensive development plans and loses in court has to then cover the winners’ legal fees.

“It will end citizen-initiated and landowner-initiated [planning] challenges in the state of Florida. And if we don’t have that challenge, comprehensive plans will not be enforceable. We’ll be back to where we were before 1985,” said Thomas Hawkins, the organization’s planning and policy director.

His group, and others, very much would like DeSantis to veto the bill, and is working with other groups to send a letter urging a veto.

Hawkins worries that legislators didn’t appreciate what they were doing.

This language showed up at the very last minute. The Senate voted on it just hours after it was proposed. It was never heard in committee. It was never subjected to a staff analysis. It was not discussed on the floor at all. This language had not been vetted by anyone.”

The Legislature passed the Growth Management Act to put teeth into local governments’ development regulations. Cities and counties, Hawkins said, were putting their comprehensive plans “on the shelf.”

“They weren’t making actual permitting decisions consistent with their plans,” Hawkins said. “There was broad agreement that was a problem.”

The law provided for “consistency challenges” – giving private citizens standing to sue when local governments approve  building permits, rezonings, or massive developments that are inconsistent with the local  comprehensive plan. “That’s the only enforcement mechanism,” Hawkins said.

Since lobbyists for developers got the Legislature to abolish Florida’s Department of Community Affairs land-planning agency years ago,  no state agency enforces the local plans.

The new measure would steer comprehensive plan challenges to summary hearings – a fast-track legal proceeding more typically used to resolve landlord-tenant disputes, Hawkins said. Parties, however, would be allowed to opt out of summary proceedings if they can show “clear and convincing evidence” that it would be inappropriate to handle the dispute in a summary hearing.

The measure  says that prevailing parties in these actions would be  “entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees and costs incurred in challenging or defending the order, including reasonable appellate attorney fees and costs.”

“If you’re a landowner who’s trying to enforce your property rights by trying to have the local government follow the comprehensive plan – if you’re a community organization or environmental organization trying to enforce the plan – you have to weigh the risk that, if you lose, you’ll have to pay the city’s attorney fees,” Hawkins said.

“That’s a very lopsided equation. If you’re just paying your own attorney fees, you can design the litigation to be as affordable as possible – you’re going to shop around for attorneys; you’re going to work it to make is affordable,” he said.

“Cities don’t do that. They have in-house attorneys who have the ability to spend as much time as possible on these things.”

Similar language by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from Pinellas County, had surfaced in a committee hearing a week before the floor vote, Hawkins said, but Brandes withdrew it after 1000 Friends raised an alarm – only to present it on the Senate floor on May 1, mere days before the session ended.

16 COMMENTS

  1. That’s how republicans screw us”we the people “ should have a vote on every piece of legislation before it goes to the governor and nothing can be added last minute ! Sneaky bastards

  2. Here we go again! Crooked to the core! What happened to A government by the people for the people?

  3. This is horrible!! More and the Citizens who pay taxes are gagged and prohibited to protect their home environments. Impacts from development will be ignored. We should be more about safeguards and planning smart development. I fear for the future generations dealing with water quantity and quality problems. Greed is ruling our elected officials.

  4. Mabel Graham, what flavor of Kool-Aid do you drink? How do Republicans get the blame for this Bill and the lateness of it? Do you know anything about it or which entity brought it forth? You might actually read the Bill before commenting. There are many other items in that Bill.

    As for your “we the people” voting for every piece of legislation, in a sense we do through a proxy called an elected representative. You have a voice and obviously a keyboard. This forum is not a means to an end, but nothing more than a sounding board. Contacting your representative is where your voice is heard. They work for their constituents which includes you.

  5. I don’t a political party; Dems are no better. I am concerned, though, about the process that would allow bypassing any vetting of the bill before it reaches the governor’s desk. I don’t mind development, just unbridled development.

  6. I’m curious is Jeff Brandes was responsible for the language at the last minute, and whether he received any compensation for his subterfuge, and who will cover his legal fees if a trail of corruption leads to charges.

  7. Let me see if I have this right. An amendment added at the last minute to a bill by a republican. To a body controlled by the Republicans. Was set to the desk of the governor who is Republican. Then I am seeing comments saying like don’t blame the Republicans. Sounds about right. Maybe the Democrats might do it in another universe but this one is all on one party. Please blame the correct party, the Democrats had no hand in this one.

  8. It has gotten to the point that I trust very few politicians,. I am sure that the Board of County Commissioners in Santa Rosa County will celebrate in high fashion if this bill passes. Growth in SRC is getting out of hand yet the BOCC continue to take large donations to their campaign fund from developers, builders, realtors, etc with little or no regard to the citizens. Oh, well, such is life.

  9. I agree with Stan. Our elected officials have there responsibility to brief that before it goes forward. My question is with all the building going on here, where is the “affordable” housing located??

  10. Time to register across party lines and take them out in their primaries.

    “When you have capitalism capturing democracy, when you have the kind of regulatory capture where powerful corporations are able to arrange the rules for their benefit, that’s not real capitalism. If you want to see what happens when you have capitalism without democracy, you can see it very clearly in Russia,” he said.

    “It turns into crony capitalism. And that turns into oligarchy,”

  11. What can you expect from the cheating Republicans? Curbing the runaway development in Florida is important for the state, but rich Republicans only care about business and making money. My heart is breaking for Florida as it follows cheating Trump and his loyal cheaters.

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