Florida environmentalists say law prevents challenges to land use plans

Florida’s environment will suffer “irreparable damage” under a new law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that opponents say will financially deter ordinary people from defying proposals to change local rules limiting the size and scope of new developments.

That’s according to a vocal coalition of environmental groups that opposed Senate Bill 540 from the start, saying the Republican-backed legislation will quash any desire by ordinary citizens to challenge land use change requests.

“It will pave the way for urban sprawl and cause irreparable damage to Florida’s environment and quality of life,” 1,000 Friends of Florida, a sustainable growth nonprofit, said in an angry statement released this week.

The law “will threaten ordinary Floridians with financial ruin for exercising their right to legally challenge amendments that conflict with their communities’ comprehensive plans: their plans for environmentally and fiscally sustainable growth.”

Supporters said the new law will not only resolve conflicting rulings by lower courts on the issue, but also ensure that those who challenge municipalities’ land use rules take it seriously.

“You want to give the citizen challenging that or any entity challenging some skin in the game,” Sen. Nick DiCeglie, Republican of Indian Rocks Beach and a sponsor of the bill, told Florida Politics reporter Gary Rohrer. “Having the skin in the game for these prevailing attorney fees is essentially the spirit of this bill.”

Opponents said the law tips the balance in favor of local governments and developers who want to build bigger than current local regulations allow while leaving average residents who challenge the application, and lose, in a serious financial bind.

“Challenges like this happen every year in Florida communities because, again, most of these compensation plan amendments are designed to facilitate more or more dense development,” said Gil Smart, executive director of VoteWater, an advocacy group. of clean water based in Stuart.

“Those cases are almost always extremely controversial in local communities. People pack the meetings, it will last for months,” Smart said. The new law “will cause citizens who try to go to court to stop such things and lose to get really beaten up.”

Friends of the Everglades said the new law was the result of “the worst environmental bill passed by the Florida Legislature during the 2023 session” and that it “is a death sentence for smart growth in Florida.”

Friends of the Everglades, the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Hold the Line Coalition and the Everglades Coalition, representing more than 60 other opposition groups, also pleaded with DeSantis to veto the bill.

“This denial of public participation through excessive financial barriers will have far-reaching implications for water and the Everglades and is a disappointing step back for Florida,” Friends of the Everglades said.

The law will enter into force on July 1, 2023.

Other legislation that environmental groups oppose includes a line item in the state budget that environmental groups say would amount to a state ban on fertilizer use by local governments. Opponents said the rules that local governments have about when and how much lawn fertilizer can be used should be dropped.

SB 170 is also on the governor’s desk. It would make it easier for companies to sue local governments over ordinances that companies say affect their bottom line, such as many environmental ordinances. The bill, if signed into law, would require the local municipality to suspend the ordinance in question during any lawsuit and, even if the business loses, for an additional 45 days.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by the VoLo Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate global change and impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, improving education, and improving health.

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