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Get the latest coverage of the 2023 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

DeSantis signs Florida's controversial comprehensive plan bill

Supporters say the measure heads off frivolous lawsuits, while opponents call it "the sprawl bill"
Supporters say the measure heads off frivolous lawsuits, while opponents call it "the sprawl bill"

As of July 1, when individuals or groups challenge their local comprehensive plans or their amendments, the “prevailing” parties will be able to recover legal fees

Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation that environmental groups say will make it harder to limit sprawling development in Florida. But supporters of the measure say it will reduce frivolous lawsuits in Florida.

The bill, which lawmakers passed during the legislative session that ended May 5, addresses legal challenges to local comprehensive growth-management plans.

Now, when individuals or groups challenge the local comprehensive plan or its amendments, the “prevailing” parties will be able to recover legal fees in cases at the state Division of Administrative Hearings.

Republican Senator Nick DiCeglie of St. Petersburg is the bill’s sponsor. He says it will force potential challengers to put more “skin in the game” when they challenge a local development project.

“You want to give the citizen who’s challenging that, or whatever entity challenging that some skin in the game because obviously you go up against local governments, they’ve got some pretty deep pockets when it comes to defending lawsuits,” he said. “And so having the skin in the game, I think, for these prevailing attorney fees is essentially the spirit of this bill.”

Environmental groups call it the “sprawl bill.” More than 60 groups argued that the threat of facing such hefty legal costs will dissuade potential challenges to comprehensive plan changes.

And that, says Jane West of the group 1000 Friends of Florida, means ordinary Floridians will face financial ruin for exercising their right to legally challenge amendments that conflict with their communities’ comprehensive plans.

“Sprawl is incredibly expensive,” said West. “It’s expensive because you have to extend roads, you have to provide additional schools, fire safety… And so citizens serve as a protective measure to make sure that the provisions of a comprehensive plan are being complied with, and they often are not.”

West called the measure “incredibly short-sighted.”

“At this point, I don’t see even the point of having comprehensive plans in the state of Florida. It’s a complete farce,” she said. “And we no longer subscribe to any semblance of logical or reasonable growth management in this state. And all of us are going to end up paying the price for that, ultimately.”

But DiCeglie pointed to hearings that are held before comprehensive-plan changes are approved as opportunities to support or oppose them.

“In the first two committee stops, I heard a lot about folks not having the ability to dispute comprehensive plans,” he said. “That is not accurate. There are multiple opportunities for the public to voice their either support or not support for any of these comprehensive plans or the amendment.”

The measure becomes law on July 1st.

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Margie Menzel