Want to challenge an environmental decision in Florida? It could cost you
With weeks to go before the Florida Legislative session even begins, a solid contender for “Worst Bill of the Year” has entered the fray.
And you know that’s going to be a crowded field.
Gaze upon House Bill 789 and Senate Bill 738, a pair of proposals which — if passed — could penalize citizens who challenge a state environmental decision and lose by saddling them with up to $50,000 in the state’s court costs.
Sound vaguely familiar? It should. The bills are similar to a measure signed into law last session; SB 540 requires citizens that challenge a comprehensive plan or comp plan amendment and lose to pay the “prevailing party’s” legal fees.
The purpose of that bill, and these new ones, can be boiled down to one word: Intimidation.
They’ll tamp down on “nuisance lawsuits,” citizen challenges to environmental permits or other “authorizations.” Sure, you can still challenge rules and regulations — but you’d better win.
If you don’t, you’d better have your checkbook handy.
House Bill 789 is sponsored by Republican Toby Overdorf of Stuart; SB 738 is sponsored by Republican Sen. Danny Burgess of Zephyrhills. Both employ some curious language; Overdorf’s HB 789 stipulates that “the prevailing party in a challenge filed against a Department of Environmental Protection or water management district authorization … is entitled to recover reasonable costs and attorney fees in challenging or defending such authorization” (emphasis added).
Surely “authorization” means permits — but what else does it mean? Rules and rulemaking, where the agencies are “authorized” to do so by state law?
The legislation would require state agencies to pay up if an administrative law judge or appellate court rules against the agencies. But such challenges are rarely successful. And where they fail, the challenger’s on the hook “if the appellate court or administrative law judge determines that a party participated in the proceedings for an improper purpose” as defined in Florida law.
If passed, these bills could whack conservation groups like the Florida Springs Council, which has challenged water bottling permits Florida DEP springs cleanup plans.
“This is an awful bill and an existential threat to trying to protect Florida’s environment,” council Executive Director Ryan Smart (no relation to VoteWater Executive Director Gil Smart) told Politico (subscriber access only).
Burgess, by contrast, told Politico the bill was about “seeking fundamental fairness.”
There are other provisions to HB 780/SB 738, including language that would require DEP and the water management districts to “conduct a holistic review of their respective agency’s current coastal permitting processes and other permit programs” in order to “identify areas of improvement and to increase efficiency within each process and program.”
But when it comes to environmental permitting, efficiency shouldn’t be the primary goal – rigor should be. It’s not about shoving as many permits/projects through the pipeline as possible; it’s about making sure the projects are well-vetted and won’t inflict yet more harm on our waterways or the broader environment.
But that’s a hard sell in Tallahassee these days.
Again, the 2024 Legislative Session doesn’t begin until Jan. 9; neither HB 789 or SB 738 have had a hearing. We’ll keep you updated when they do, and provide an opportunity for you to make your voices heard on these and other damaging bills this session — because your advocacy counts, now more than ever.