Amendment in state bill could impact growth management in Florida

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) -- Just before House Bill 7103 was passed at the end of the Florida legislative session, an amendment was added to the bill that could limit the ability of citizens to challenge new developments and projects.

Municipalities in Florida are required, under the 1985 Growth Management Act, to have something called a comprehensive plan. This plan outlines how that municipality will account for growth and development.

The tangible effects of development are felt in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood in Gainesville, where Lee Malis has lived for a few years now. Recently, Malis entered into a dispute with a developer planning to construct a new apartment complex directly behind his home.

"I came home one day and they were just starting to rip out trees in my backyard, and one of them was a giant live oak," Malis said. "It was within my fence."

Malis received an injunction to stop the developer from tearing up the tree, but he said the developer filed a countersuit, which Malis said cost him around $7,000.

Now, apartment windows look down onto Malis' backyard. As construction continues, the live oak stands, missing most of its limbs and the canopy almost non-existent.

If the amendment added to House Bill 7103 had been in place and Malis had taken the City of Gainesville to court over the development, he could have been responsible for paying the city's legal fees, and potentially the developer's.

"If I had not been able to fight for it, if the city had charged legal fees, I don't think I could have have afforded what I was doing," Malis said. "If you have to pay your lawyer 10 or 20 thousand dollars, then you're gonna have to pay on top of that another 50 to 100 thousand, who can afford to do that? Nobody."

Opponents of the amendment, like the group 1,000 Friends of Florida, said the law can be used to silence groups or individuals wishing to challenge a project or development on legitimate grounds.

"It's the possibility of that challenge that keeps the system working," said Thomas Hawkins, the Policy Director with 1,000 Friends of Florida. "The courts don't actually enforce the laws in most circumstances, but it's the possibility of that appeals process being there that makes sure everybody being there wants to do it right the first time."

Supporters of the amendment, like local contractor and Past President of the Builder's Association of North Central Florida Eric Drummond, said the amendment pushes back against frivolous lawsuits.

"It's really to make sure that when people do have concerns and they bring them forward in the form of litigation, that they really think of the potential outcomes and weigh the consequence of their actions," Drummond said. "A developer even has the opportunity to sue a local government if they find that the development order doesn't go in their particular manner."

Hawkins said there are already laws in place protecting frivolous lawsuits, though. He maintained that the amendment threatens to cripple growth management in Florida.

The amendment was introduced by State Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican representing a district in Pinellas County.

The bill will soon be transmitted to Governor DeSantis, who will have 15 days to either sign or veto it.