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Florida environmentalists raise concerns about upcoming development bills

Tricia Woolfenden

Environmental groups are raising concerns that legislative proposals would damage land-use planning and run counter to conservation efforts backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Representatives of 1000 Friends of Florida, Friends of the Everglades and VoteWater targeted numerous bills filed for the upcoming legislative session that could do such things as redefine sprawl, deter citizens from challenging comprehensive land-plan amendments and prevent cities and counties from regulating wetlands.

VoteWater Executive Director Gil Smart said during a conference call with reporters that the measures would result in “more rooftops,” “reckless development” and increased nutrient loaded stormwater runoff.

“Gov. DeSantis put forth what I think is a sort of a policy statement on his commitment to clean water,” Smart said. “All of these bills go in the exact opposite direction. All of them would lead to dirtier water.”

The comments came as the Republican-controlled Legislature prepares to start its annual session on March 7

In January, DeSantis issued an executive order that called for “meaningful” funding for the Florida Forever land-conservation program and continued support for the Resilient Florida Program, which is designed to help protect against sea-level rise. He also proposed spending $3.5 billion over the next four years on projects such as restoring the Everglades and addressing water-quality problems.

DeSantis’ outline also seeks to speed work on a sprawling wildlife corridor and to protect coral reefs.

Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, previously called DeSantis’ outline “vague” and said it will be essential to track how the money is eventually spent.

On Thursday, Samples focused on bills that have been filed and, in at least some cases, have already started moving through House and Senate committees.

Samples said Florida was considered the leader in land planning after passage of the 1985 Growth Management Act. But she said sound growth policies have been slowly undercut by lawmakers for more than a decade and that 2023 is shaping up to be “the worst session we've seen in terms of bad development bills since 2011.”

Among other things, the Legislature in 2011 eliminated the Department of Community Affairs and shifted land-planning oversight to the newly created Department of Economic Opportunity.

As an example of this year’s bills criticized by the environmental groups, two Senate committees last month approved a measure (SB 170) that could bolster legal challenges to city and county ordinances.

In part, the bill would require local governments to suspend enforcement of ordinances while lawsuits play out. Also, plaintiffs who successfully challenge ordinances in court could receive up to $50,000 for attorney fees and costs. The bill is ready to go to the full Senate.

“I do believe that this bill will streamline some of the processes for local governments and give citizens a fundamental right to level the playing field for those who feel trapped in arbitrary and unreasonable local laws,” bill sponsor Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said Feb. 23 as the measure was approved by the Rules Committee.

Other bills drawing concerns from environmental groups include:

— HB 439, which would make a series of changes to land-use and development regulations. As an example, it would redefine “urban sprawl” to mean “an unplanned development pattern that requires the extension of public facilities by a local government.”

— HB 359 and SB 540, which could lead to people and organizations being forced to pay legal fees if they unsuccessfully challenge changes to comprehensive growth-management plans at the state Division of Administrative Hearings.

— HB 1197 and SB 1240, which would preempt local-government regulations about water quality, water quantity, pollution control and wetlands. The state could withhold funds to local governments that violate the preemption.

— HB 397, which would allow local-government officials to meet privately with developers’ attorneys who contend violations of the Bert Harris Private Property Rights Act have occurred. The Bert Harris act allows property owners to seek damages if government decisions have “inordinately burdened” property use.

— HB 41 and SB 856, which would prohibit voter initiatives or referendums on amendments to land-development regulations

Jim Turner is a reporter for the News Service of Florida.
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