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Florida Senate Panel Takes Aim At Local Powers

Ryan Dailey
State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr.

TALLAHASSEE --- Orders imposed by local officials after hurricanes, pandemic outbreaks or other emergencies could be overturned by the governor or Legislature, under a measure that moved forward Tuesday in the Senate.

The proposal (SB 1924), approved along party lines by the Republican-controlled Senate Community Affairs Committee, comes after months of controversy about local COVID-19 mask and curfew directives.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, would limit to 10 days locally issued emergency orders, which could be invalidated by the governor or the Legislature. The proposal would allow the orders to be extended but would require the support of city or county elected officials.

Currently, local states of emergency can be ordered for seven days and extended indefinitely in seven-day increments as needed.

Diaz, said his proposal is due to the “different iterations” of emergency orders issued during the pandemic “that have gone above and beyond in restricting individual freedoms, rights and an ability to live.”

A similar measure in the House (HB 945) would allow the extensions to go a maximum of 42 days, approved in seven-day extensions.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said with the governor and Legislature undoing local orders, people might not heed the directives of local officials in future emergencies.

“We elect local government to support our local needs, and they should have the freedom to rule as they need and not be dictated to by a timeline that may not work,” Polsky said.

Tonnette Graham, associate director of public policy with the Florida Association of Counties, called the proposal an overreaction amid the year-long pandemic.

“Ordinarily, our emergency orders are not historically this long,” Graham said. “We are in a historic time in this current pandemic.”

But Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the bill “clarifies freedom” without stepping on home rule.

“I think it's very wise to establish some precedent of how we will restrict these protocols,” Baxley said. “They can't just go on and on with special orders. Eventually, that's a dictatorship if nobody ever comes back to the legislative bodies.”

The measure about emergency powers was one of a series of proposals that the committee supported Tuesday that could limit authority of local governments.

The other bills includeD proposals to prohibit the replacement of gas stations with greener energy options (SB 856), limit the ability of local governments to set “building design elements” on many single- and two-family homes (SB 284) and block the replacement of natural gas as a home energy source (SB 1128).

Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who is sponsoring the two energy-related “preemptions,” said his proposals will allow local governments to advance clean energy options without prohibiting energy sources already in place.

Hutson said cities in California have started to ban gas stations.

“If they want to keep doing the solar, wind, energy-efficient electric vehicle things that they have in place, and they want to continue to do within their city, they are certainly allowed to,” Hutson said. “They just can't cut off or be regressive to the consumers’ choice of what’s in place currently today.”

An Axios Media report on March 1 said Petaluma, Calif., north of San Francisco, has become the first to ban new gas stations in a move aimed at accelerating the shift to electric vehicles.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said the free market should dictate the future of gas stations.

“I imagine, you know, as the need declines, a Wawa or RaceTrac … they spend millions of dollars on their market studies on what they need or don't need,” Cruz said.

Similar proposals in the House (HB 919 and HB 839) each have cleared a single panel and await an appearance in the Local Administration & Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.

Meanwhile, one of the other bills approved Tuesday would limit the ability of local governments to set building-design elements, such as external colors, styles of roofs and porches and styles of windows and doors, for single- and two-family homes. Developers would still have to follow building codes, and the proposal wouldn’t override rules put in place by homeowners’ associations or planned communities.

Bill sponsor Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican who owns a roofing company, said the proposal might lower the costs of building homes and give homeowners a chance to be more expressive with the exterior design.

“Anytime that you put another restriction or application on a home, the cost tends to go up,” Perry said. “So, what we're trying to do is two things: One is affordable housing; but one is also to let people be creative and have their own design on their own lot in their own property.”

Jim Turner / News Service of Florida
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