By Paul Owens
In Florida, decisions about where, when and how communities will grow are guided by comprehensive plans, created with the input of community residents and the ultimate approval of their elected leaders. With goals, objectives and policies for transportation, housing, infrastructure, conservation and other elements, they are intended to be the foundation for environmentally and fiscally sustainable development.
Comp plans are typically amended to pave the way for expanded development. So it’s vital that Floridians maintain the practical ability to challenge amendments when they believe those amendments conflict with provisions in those plans. But a pair of bills now lurking in the Florida Legislature, House Bill 359 and Senate Bill 540, would all but eliminate that ability, dealing a devastating blow to effective citizen engagement in community planning.
The bills, from Rep. Wyman Duggan and Sen. Nick DiCeglie, would change state law to require the loser in a comp-plan amendment challenge to pay the legal costs of the winner. Citizens and public interest groups could still challenge amendments, but they would face financial ruin if they lose by getting stuck with the bills run up by local governments and by developers who intervene to defend amendments.
Few, if any, citizens or groups would take that risk. This is not groundless speculation. Four years ago, the Legislature recklessly changed state law to require losers in challenges to development orders to pay the legal costs of the winners. Since then, 1000 Friends of Florida is aware of only two — two! — development-order challenges in Florida. In the fastest growing state in the nation, that’s stunning.
Comp plans have been called constitutions for growth. Like constitutions, they should only be amended with care.
There are often good reasons to challenge comp-plan amendments. For example, a recent citizens’ challenge to an amendment that would have cleared the way for a high-rise resort on San Carlos Island in Southwest Florida was upheld by a state administrative law judge because it would have added hours to hurricane evacuation time from the area, violating another provision in the comp plan.
It’s already daunting for a citizen or citizens’ group to challenge an amendment. Usually it requires paying a lawyer with expertise in land-use law who is capable of taking on a team of lawyers from the local government and developers. The change proposed in HB 359/SB 540 would turn a heavy burden into an unbearable one. HB 359 has been approved by two committees and has one to go before it reaches the House floor. SB 540 has not been considered in committee yet.
The consequences of ending comp-plan amendment challenges would be especially chilling in Miami-Dade County, where commissioners in recent months have been bombarded with proposed amendments to permit development on natural or agricultural land outside the Urban Development Boundary — land that is vital to protect for the region’s water supply, the health of Biscayne Bay and other waterways, the future of agriculture in the county and the ultimate success of the multibillion-dollar taxpayer funded effort to restore the Everglades.
At a recent legislative hearing, supporters of HB 359 argued citizens could hold their local elected leaders accountable for violating their community’s vision for future growth by defeating them for re-election. But meanwhile, approval of a comp plan amendment may have led to radical, irreversible impacts on a community, like a megadevelopment on wetlands. At that point, voting the officials responsible out of office would be closing the garage door after the bulldozers have already left. Bill supporters also argued it’s needed to deter frivolous challenges, but state law already allows judges to make anyone who has filed a frivolous lawsuit pay attorney fees and costs to the winning party.
In a state growing as fast as Florida, thoughtful planning for the future is essential. The stakes — our natural resources, the tax burden on citizens and businesses and our quality of life — couldn’t be higher.
It’s ironic that Gov. DeSantis issued an executive order in January that called for the departments of Environmental Protection and Economic Opportunity to work with local governments “to improve local government long-term comprehensive planning that ensures sustainable growth while protecting our natural resources.” HB 359/SB 540 would do exactly the opposite. For the sake of Florida’s future, these bills must never become law.
Paul Owens is the president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to environmentally and fiscally sustainable development. This opinion column was originally published by the Miami Herald, which is a media partner of The Invading Sea.