By Steve Newborn
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill late Friday that critics say will gut the state's system of managing growth. The bill also restricts governments from creating affordable housing.
The new law means anyone challenging a development that's inconsistent with that county's existing growth plan would have to pay the other side's attorney's fees if they lose.
Deborah Foote, director of government affairs for the Sierra Club of Florida, says the fear of having to pay potentially huge fees will mean most ordinary citizens won't challenge developers.
"There's no way that they can know ahead of time - should they lose - what they're going to have to pay. And that's just going to have a chilling effect," she said. "The very thought that they would have to pay those fees when they're bringing forward a reasonable case is just tantamount to shutting down the whole process."
"The big challenge is going to be for citizens to continue to challenge development orders," she said. "And that is really the only way that development orders can be enforced to be consistent with growth management."
Her views were echoed in a letter by Paul Owens, president of the environmental advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Florida:
It's critical that communities abide by their comprehensive plans to protect our environment, economy and quality of life amid our state's rapid growth. But the risk of getting slapped with the legal fees for both sides will scare most citizens away from exercising their right to go to court to challenge development orders and enforce comprehensive plans.
There is no need for this provision; state law already gives judges the authority to require citizens who file frivolous consistency challenges to pay the other sides' legal fees. So HB 7103 really targets citizens with legitimate complaints about development orders. It will undermine, instead of support, the governor's emphasis on environmental protection.
And this provision was added in the final days of this year's legislative session in a floor amendment that was never introduced or debated by legislators in committee, or subjected to public testimony, or analyzed by staff. There was never a meaningful discussion of its ruinous consequences.
The bill also allows local governments to require new developments to have units set aside for affordable housing. But Foote says local governments will be forced to repay developers for any financial losses, meaning taxpayers would foot the bill.
“In a state facing an affordable housing crisis, the governor just made it harder for local governments to do something about it,” said Foote.