About 100 citizen activists gathered in Fort Lauderdale in the rain Monday night for an open forum about quality of life issues and development.
“We may be under water tonight, but I promise what you hear will not be watered down,” Stan Eichelbaum told the crowd under tents at the Historic Stranahan House Museum.
Eichelbaum is the president of the Downtown Fort Lauderdale Civic Association and a citizen activist. He organized a public forum for people to ask a panel of three land-use attorneys questions about a new state law: House Bill 7103.
The law changes the way private citizens can challenge developers in court. Because of how many controversial developments have been challenged by private citizens in recent years - the WAVE Streetcar and the Bahia Mar development - the law is also changing the conversations among civic groups in Fort Lauderdale.
"Now, when a private citizen challenges in court a final decision on a development, they risk having to pay legal fees for the developer if they lose," Frank Schnidman explained. A retired land-use attorney and University of Miami and Florida Atlantic University professor, he was the evening's moderator.
“We’re here to talk about the level of caution that you need to exercise as a community activist,” Schnidman told the crowd.
Kevin Cochrane lives in Fort Lauderdale. He came to learn more about what options citizens' have going forward.
"Our city is going through rapid development and citizens are concerned about being aware of the developments that are occurring and having their voice heard,” he said. “I think what we heard today, was that we can remain engaged, but we must be respectful."
The land-use attorneys on the panel weighed the law's pros and cons. Jane West, policy and planning director for the environmental advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida, said that, since the bill was signed into law, she has seen clients drop cases against developers out of fear of having to pay their legal fees if they lose. The nonprofit is suing the state and several state officers over HB 7103.
“We’re taking action on this because at the end of the day, it basically causes the average Floridian not to participate in the public process,” she said. “This is a complete game changer for what Florida is going to look like.”
“Florida’s biggest environmental problem … is all tied to how we make our land use decisions,” West said.
Fort Lauderdale Attorney James Brady took a different approach to explaining the new law.
“The winner gets attorneys fees from the loser … the developer may pay your attorneys fees,” Brady pointed out. “There will be a more guarded approach in terms of challenges. I think if anything that makes us more responsible with our dialogue with each other, make the system better. I think it should be welcomed.”
The forum also explored how citizens comments could impact their challenging process in court. However, it did not address other components of the law, like workforce housing and impact fees.
Active citizens like Mary Fertig appreciated that both sides of the law were argued on the panel. Fertig is the president of the Idlewyld Civic Association, and also sits on Fort Lauderdale’s planning and zoning board.
The planning and zoning board will hear public comment on the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and vote to send updates to the city commission on November 20. Fertig encouraged everyone who came to hear about the new community growth and development law, to voice their concerns not only at the forum, but also in city hall.
“I think citizen participation is part of our culture,” Fertig said.