Legislative update: ‘Session of sprawl?’ You’re soaking in it

We hate it when we’re right.

Back in February, before the Florida Legislature even convened, we predicted this would be a “Session of Sprawl.”

Just as we feared, bad bills that make paving over natural Florida that much easier are zipping through the legislative process. Measures that would disenfranchise citizens, eviscerate home rule and potentially open up huge new swaths of the state to development are encountering little to no opposition.

And — need we even say it? — most bills that would help the clean-water cause are going nowhere.

It’s par for the course up in Tallahassee – and emblematic of the need for change.

But there is some good news: The two worst bills of the session (so far!) — House Bill 1197 and its Senate companion, SB 1240 — appear dead in the water. These proposals would have effectively outlawed local government attempts to pass clean-water or pollution-reduction rules, preempting authority to the state. Neither bill got a single hearing — thankfully.

But like a vampire, bad legislation in Florida never truly dies. So don’t be surprised if these bills rear their hideous heads again next year.

Meanwhile, other pro-sprawl bills are making a beeline for Gov. Ron DeSantis’s desk.

The worst of the lot is House Bill 359/Senate Bill 540, “Local Government Comprehensive Plans”; both on tap to be considered by the House/Senate. The bills would require anyone challenging a local comprehensive plan or plan amendment to pay the “prevailing party’s” legal fees if they lose. It’s an outrageous attempt to intimidate citizens; few will risk fiscal calamity by filing a challenge. And that, of course, is exactly what the Sprawl Industry wants: Get those pesky citizens out of the way so we can fire up the bulldozers.

We targeted SB 540 last week, as did several other conservation groups, asking you to contact legislators and ask them to vote “no” on the bill. A problematic amendment to the bill which would have retroactively approved a controversial Miami-Dade proposal outside the urban development boundary was ultimately scuttled; but despite your emails and phone calls, the underlying bad bill still passed the Senate Rules Committee April 11.

Another bad idea, HB 439/SB 1604, has been sanded down; but it’s still lousy.

This bill would have redefined “sprawl” as merely “unplanned” and “uncontrolled” development; but this redefinition has been removed from SB 1604. Yet HB 439 would still redefine “urban service area” as any region with services like roads or sewers, OR any region that could get those services via public or private/business investment.

Under that definition, virtually any tract of land anywhere in Florida could be within the “urban service area” — so long as a developer is willing to pay to extend the roads and sewer lines.

House Bill 1515/SB 170, “Local Ordinances,” would make it easier for local businesses to sue local governments for ordinances that affect the bottom line. Local clean-water rules, single-use plastic bans (plastic bags, straws), perhaps even wetlands preservation regulations could be targeted in court and scuttled if they cut into profits. The measure essentially kneecaps home rule — but SB 170 has already passed the full Senate, while HB 1515 is nearing a full House vote.

Lastly, HB 41/SB 856, “Land Development Initiative & Referendum Process,” would prohibit local initiatives or referendums on land development regulations. House Bill 41 has already made it to the House floor; but SB 856 was pulled from a recent committee hearing with no explanation — and it hasn’t been rescheduled.

We’d be happy to see both bills go down in flames, but there’s always a chance that if HB 41 clears the house it could get tacked on to other legislation as an amendment, even if SB 856 never gets another hearing.

None of these bills have been signed into law yet; there’s still a chance to weigh in. Contact your local legislative delegation to make your displeasure known; find your Florida Representative here, and your Florida Senator here.

And for a more detailed rundown including other bills of interest, check out the mid-session report from our friends at Friends of the Everglades.