When Gov. Ron DeSantis put his signature on a bill authorizing three unnecessary, ridiculously expensive “toll roads to nowhere” that would plow across millions of acres of undisturbed land at Florida’s heart, he put his self-claimed reputation as a champion of the state’s fragile, threatened environment in jeopardy.
Now, he faces an even tougher challenge. Within the next few weeks, legislation will land on his desk that will gut Florida’s already-weak oversight of rampant, irresponsible development. Like the toll roads, these bills were mostly concocted in secret through last-minute, legislative machinations.
The state’s most respected smart-growth groups are aiming most of their firepower at the blandly titled HB 7103, “Community Development and Housing.”
This would be the last nail in the coffin for Florida’s once-innovative comprehensive planning laws enacted in the 1980s. These laws require each community to enact blueprints for growth, making sure new developments meet minimum standards for flood protection, infrastructure and the like. The plan becomes local government’s guidebook: every development decision must be consistent with the plan.
Once upon a time, there was a state agency to review development proposals, the Department of Community Affairs. But in 2011, Gov. Rick Scott got rid of the “job killer,” as he called it, and folded its remaining duties into the Department of Economic Opportunity. Scott and the Republican-led Legislature also crippled the concept of concurrency — a requirement that schools, parks and adequate roads be in place before development is completed. And they starved the state’s 11 regional planning councils of money.
There was one safeguard left. Citizens had the right go to court and challenge a bad decision by their local government: a condo tower that exceeds a height limit, an apartment complex in a neighborhood of single-family homes.
But if HB 7103 becomes law, that final right to protest will be crushed. Citizen challenges will face a tilted burden of proof — and the requirement to pay the opposing side’s legal fees if they lose. Basically, all a developer would have to do to win is to send a squadron of high-priced attorneys into battle — and then punish anyone audacious enough to challenge their profiteering with crippling legal fees.
This isn’t the only reason this bill deserves a veto. It also deters local governments from requiring developers to include affordable housing in their projects.
If he signs it, it’s game over for Ron DeSantis, the warrior intent on protecting Florida’s threatened water resources and natural beauty. He’ll be exposed as something worse than an honest shill for the kind of reckless environmental destruction that most Floridians decry. He’ll be the person who was willing to trick people into thinking he cared — before he stripped them of the ability to defend this state’s endangered environment against irresponsible, predatory development.
Governor, please veto 7103. Do the right thing to reclaim some of the faith you’ve lost.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the Gainesville Sun, a News Herald sister paper with GateHouse Media