By the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board
For the past week, Florida lawmakers have sent a flood of bad legislation to Gov. Ron DeSantis. For most of it, his signature is a given, because after all, a lot of those bills were his idea.
But one bill in particular has an outcome that seems uncertain. It’s Senate Bill 540, which a broad coalition of environmental and smart-growth advocates have called “the sprawl bill” and the death knell for growth management in Florida.
The characterization is accurate. In a state growing as fast as Florida, the potential this bill creates for widespread economic and environmental havoc is immeasurable. Worse, it threatens to crush any Floridian with the courage to stand up and challenge bad growth decisions and urban sprawl.
In a more moderate Legislature, an idea like this never would have made it to the floor for a vote. This bill badly deserves a veto. We hope that Gov. Ron DeSantis, who early in his tenure vetoed a few legislative attempts to thwart local control, sees it the same way.
First, a little history
To understand why SB 540 is such a bad idea, a little history is in order.
Even those who didn’t grow up in Florida can probably remember this state’s well-earned reputation for careless, destructive sprawl: Cities popping up in the middle of nowhere, environmentally sensitive land bulldozed for acres and acres of cookie-cutter houses, buyers ripped off by land scams.
In the 1980s, a group of visionary state leaders came up with a way to force growth into more responsible, sustainable patterns, making it harder for development to push its way into fragile ecosystems and ensuring that sufficient roads, schools and utilities could support new growth.
At the heart of this effort: Comprehensive growth management plans adopted by cities and counties spelled out how each community would grow. Any development that was big enough to have an impact on these plans required a formal land use amendment. By design, amendments were a lot harder to accomplish, with residents and local officials empowered to speak up against developers who wanted to build cheap and fast and then leave local communities to shoulder the costs while rapacious developers pocketed the profits and moved on to the next town.
Over the following decades, state lawmakers chipped away at this solid structure, gutting state oversight of the plans and undermining local officials’ ability to say no to developers, and former Gov. Rick Scott eviscerated the state growth management agency.
But one thing remained: Citizens had the right to challenge growth they saw as irresponsible.
Silencing slow-growth citizens
SB 540 strangles those rights. If it becomes law, any resident or group that unsuccessfully challenges an amendment to a comprehensive growth management plan would be hit with all the legal expenses of both sides of the dispute — including attorneys’ fees of their city or county and those of developers who often intervene in challenges. The outcome is obvious: Developers could bring in high-priced attorneys to beat down opponents, with no guardrails on their spending. Adding insult to injury, the bill significantly whittles down the permissible arguments to challenge big developments.
The good-growth statewide advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida sums it up: “This bill would be especially damaging to the multibillion-dollar taxpayer-funded effort to restore the Everglades; developers have proposed a series of comprehensive plan amendments in Miami-Dade County to build major developments on land needed to restore the River of Grass.”
The same scenario would play out across Florida, in places that have set clear boundaries on urban development to preserve their quality of life and the natural habitat surrounding them. The potential for harm to area lakes, rivers and coastlines is extreme. Growth could push its way into areas that are flood-prone, leaving local taxpayers on the hook for providing thousands of new residents with needed roads, schools and other essential services.
Florida’s governor gets it. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed an executive order that tallied billions of dollars Florida has invested in protecting the state’s natural beauty and charged state lawmakers and local officials with a duty to do more to protect “long-term comprehensive planning that ensures sustainable growth while protecting our natural resources.”
That should make this decision easy for him. When this legislation arrives on his desk, he should slap it with a quick and decisive veto.