Bill ending comprehensive planning in Florida deserves governor's veto
Thomas HawkinsPublished 9:21 a.m. ET May 8, 2019
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in the fourth floor rotunda after Sine Die Saturday, May 4, 2019. (Photo: Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat)
In the final days of this year’s legislative session, the Florida Senate slipped an amendment onto House Bill 7103 that would put the final nail in the coffin on the idea of coordinated growth management in our state.
The Legislature adopted the provision with no consideration of its harmful effects. So the first real scrutiny the provision might receive will be from Gov. Ron DeSantis when he decides whether to sign or veto the bill.
The bad provision is a requirement that people who bring citizen-enforcement actions to ensure that local governments follow their comprehensive plans pay the attorney fees of local governments if they lose their challenge. A comprehensive plan is a locally adopted set of rules governing how a community will grow. Comprehensive plans cover many subject areas — from conservation and recreation to environmental protection and fiscally responsible infrastructure development.
Florida’s system of growth management relies on citizen enforcement to ensure accountability. Before the 1985 Growth Management Act, local governments adopted comprehensive plans and then set them on a shelf. No Florida law required that anyone actually follow plans for growth, even after local governments adopted them.
With citizens, environmental groups and even politicians agreeing this was a problem, former Gov. Bob Graham led the state to adopt reforms that would add checks and balances to growth management. The result was an innovation called the consistency challenge. Florida law empowered citizens to enforce comprehensive plans by bringing suits against local governments who failed to follow those plans.
In the last 30 years, the consistency challenge has allowed citizens to enforce comprehensive plans and given local governments a good reason to reliably follow through on their word. The resulting predictability is good for all of us. Developers can make investments trusting in land use plans. Environmentalists know that protected resources are actually protected.
Even local governments can plan for capital needs such as roads and sewers with confidence that future development will happen according to a plan, or not at all.
Adding a mandatory attorney fees provision to citizen-enforcement actions will change all of this.
Litigation can be expensive. While citizens can control costs on their end — by shopping around for affordable legal counsel and only bringing challenges for the most egregious violations of law — local governments have attorneys on staff and the costs of litigation at their end can quickly swell. In addition, developers often intervene in consistency challenges. In so doing, they drive up the price of litigation even further.
HB 7103 would make consistency challenges too risky for all but the most deep-pocketed.
This new risk would have far-reaching impacts on growth management. When considering development approvals, local governments currently evaluate the risk of a challenge from developers and citizens. Already, the risk of challenge for denying a developer’s request far outweighs the risk of challenge from citizens for approving an application.
With HB 7103 on the books, local governments would be subject to even more pressure to decide land use matters in favor of developers who have lobbyists and attorneys at their disposal. The desires of special interests would have even more protections under the law. The needs of the public would have even less.
Thankfully, HB 7103 is not yet law. Gov. DeSantis still has an opportunity to keep accountability in local government planning. If you care about Florida’s future, ask him to veto this bad bill.
Thomas Hawkins is policy and planning director of 1000 Friends of Florida, the state’s leading not-for-profit advocate for growth management.