Environmentalists urge DeSantis to veto growth management bill

Environmental groups are urging Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to veto a piece of legislation that they believe will discourage efforts to limit sprawl in the state. The bill in question, SB 540, allows prevailing parties to recover legal fees in comprehensive growth-management plan challenges at the Division of Administrative Hearings. Supporters of the bill argue that it’s necessary since local governments hold numerous public hearings before comprehensive-plan changes are approved, which give people an opportunity to have input. However, over 60 groups, including the Everglades Coalition, strongly oppose the plan, arguing that the threat of facing hefty legal costs would dissuade environmental organizations and other concerned individuals from challenging comprehensive growth-management plan changes.

“What citizen could possibly bring a challenge with the threat of bankruptcy looming,” Friends of the Everglades Executive Director Eve Samples said. “We already have provisions in state law to prevent frivolous lawsuits. This is about greasing the skids for developers who are pushing to develop some of the last remaining and low-lying green spaces in Florida.”

Inhibiting the public’s willingness to challenge local governments’ actions is likely to result in “a situation of sprawl that will be unprecedented,” predicted Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida. West’s group has collected over 4,100 signatures asking DeSantis to veto the bill. The Friends of the Everglades have collected another 2,800 signatures urging the governor to exercise his veto power.

During the debate on the measure last month, Senate bill sponsor Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, suggested that people who object to comprehensive-plan changes should work to elect new local officials instead of filing legal challenges. “There are sometimes up to nine opportunities for a citizen to express either support or not support for a comprehensive plan or a comprehensive plan amendment,” DiCeglie said on April 19.

DiCeglie acknowledged that “sometimes local governments will make a mistake.” “And when that happens, that is an appropriate time for someone to file suit and to challenge that… The problem I think we have, Some folks who go through that process and tell the government they don’t like this comprehensive plan or amendment nine or ten times, they’ll say, ‘Well, you know what, we’re going to continue on and file a lawsuit.’ My view, the best way to deal with local governments and comprehensive plans that you don’t like is usually at the ballot box.”

House bill sponsor Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, argued that most challenges are brought by groups that just oppose the local government’s actions. “If you just don’t like the decision that the local government made, which in many instances is the basis of these challenges, then you’re already taking on an uphill climb against their resources,” Duggan said when the bill was before the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on March 9. “And perhaps, I would submit, this really isn’t the forum or venue for you to try and pursue that policy change.”

The bill, which narrowly passed with a 29-10 vote in the Senate and an 87-30 vote in the House, also limits challenges that can be brought forward to “use, density, or intensity” impacts to a comprehensive plan. Environmental groups and other concerned individuals and organizations are now waiting to see whether Governor DeSantis will veto the legislation or allow it to become law.

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