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Florida's pro-growth law could prevent challenges to new development, opponents say

On the same day Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his presidential bid he signed into law a bill that one environmental group called
Pedro Portal
The Miami Herald
Supporters said the new law will not only resolve conflicting lower-court rulings on the issue but ensure that those who challenge a municipalities’ land-use rules are serious about it.

Florida’s environment will suffer "irreparable damage” under a new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that opponents say will financially discourage regular folks from challenging proposals to change local rules that limit the size and scope of new developments.

That’s according to a vocal coalition of environmental groups who opposed Senate Bill 540 from the start, saying the Republican-backed legislation will quash any desire by ordinary citizens to challenge land-use change requests.

It “will pave the way for urban sprawl and do irreparable damage to Florida’s environment and quality of life,” said 1,000 Friends of Florida, a sustainable growth nonprofit, in an angry statement released this week.

The law “will threaten ordinary Floridians with financial ruin for exercising their right to legally challenge amendments that conflict with their communities’ comprehensive plans — their blueprints for environmentally and fiscally sustainable growth.”

Supporters said the new law will not only resolve conflicting lower-court rulings on the issue but ensure that those who challenge a municipalities’ land-use rules are serious about it.

“You want to give the citizen who’s challenging that or whatever entity challenging that some skin in the game,” Sen. Nick DiCeglie, an Indian Rocks Beach Republican and sponsor of the bill, told reporter Gary Rohrer of Florida Politics. “Having the skin in the game for these prevailing attorney fees is essentially the spirit of this bill.”

Opponents said the law tilts the scales in favor of local governments and developers wanting to build bigger than current local regulations allow, and at the same time, would leave average residents who challenge the request — and lose — in a severe financial bind.

“Challenges like this happen every year in communities across Florida, because again, most of these comp plan amendments are designed to facilitate more, or more dense, development,” said Gil Smart, executive director of VoteWater, a clean water advocacy group based in Stuart.

“Those cases are almost always extremely controversial in the local communities. People pack the meetings, it'll go on for months,” Smart said. The new law “will make it so citizens who try to go to court to stop such things and lose are really going to get whacked.”

Friends of the Everglades said the new law resulted from “the worst environmental bill passed by the Florida Legislature during the 2023 session” and that it “is a death knell for smart growth in Florida.”

Friends of the Everglades, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Hold the Line Coalition, and the Everglades Coalition — representing more than 60 additional opposition groups — also pleaded with DeSantis to veto the bill.

“This denial of public participation by way of excessive financial barriers will have far-reaching implications for water and the Everglades and is a disappointing step backward for Florida,” Friends of the Everglades said.

The law will take effect July 1, 2023.

Other legislation opposed by environmental groups include a line item in the state budget that environmental groups said would amount to a state ban on local governments’ fertilizer-use bans. Opponents said the rules local governments have in place about when and how much lawn fertilizer can be used should be left alone.

SB 170 is also on the governor’s desk. It would make it easier for businesses to sue local governments over ordinances that the businesses claim impact their bottom line, like many environmental ordinances. The bill, if it becomes law, would require the local municipality to suspend the ordinance in question during any lawsuit and, even if the business loses, for an additional 45 days.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 
Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Tom Bayles
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