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Challenge to Florida development law rejected by appeals court

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle holding a microphone and speaking
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle

TALLAHASSEE --- In a blow to growth-management supporters, an appeals court Wednesday rejected a challenge to a 2019 state law that could make people less likely to fight local development decisions.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld a lower-court ruling that dismissed the case against the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the state’s land-planning agency.

The 2019 law dealt with attorney fees in disputes about whether local development orders are consistent with comprehensive growth-management plans.

Under the law, losing parties in lawsuits about development orders can be forced to pay the attorney fees of “prevailing” parties --- a change that opponents have said creates huge financial risks for citizens who want to challenge local government approvals of development plans.

The growth-management group 1000 Friends of Florida spearheaded the lawsuit, which alleged, in part, that the law violated constitutional due-process and First Amendment rights.

But the appeals court, in a four-page decision, said the Department of Economic Opportunity and Secretary Dane Eagle were not proper defendants and, as a result, the case should be dismissed.

“A review of the statute reveals that the director (Eagle) is not charged with enforcing the statute,” Judge Thomas Winokur wrote in the decision joined by Judges Stephanie Ray and Robert Long. “DEO (the department) would play no role in awarding prevailing party attorneys’ fees in a development order challenge litigated in the courts. The fact that DEO is the state land planning agency and has duties associated with other statutes within (a chapter of state law that includes growth issues) is immaterial to whether the director is charged with enforcing the challenged statute.”

1000 Friends of Florida and Pasco County resident Robert Howell took the case to the Tallahassee-based appeals court after Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper dismissed it last year.

In a brief filed in the appeal, 1000 Friends of Florida attorneys wrote that the Department of Economic Opportunity “has a pervasive role in the statutory scheme for requiring the adoption and enforcement of local government comprehensive plans that meet the governing statutory standards.” They also cited a major 1980s state growth-management act.

“As the courts have recognized repeatedly, if local citizens cannot enforce those comprehensive plans, those plans are not worth the paper they are written on, and the DEO’s 35 years of extensive review, challenges and (litigation) over those plans since the act’s 1985 adoption will be superfluous,” the brief said. “The law challenged in this case will preclude that meaningful review in lawsuits brought under the act, thus completely thwarting its intent.”

Jim Saunders / News Service of Florida