The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

Law allowing the public to challenge local ordinances revisited

Senior Editor Top Stories
Rep. Lawrence McClure

Rep. Lawrence McClure

A divided House panel agreed Wednesday to a proposal that would expand a 2023 law, in effect less than six months, that makes it easier to sue local governments.

The Local Administrative, Federal Affairs, & Special Districts Subcommittee voted 11-5 to approve HB 1547 by Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City.

Republican Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, a Ft. Myers attorney who chairs the committee, stressed that the measure would only apply to ordinances that could be deemed “arbitrary” or “unreasonable.”

“Here we’re talking about assuring that there’s accountability with our local officials to the people that they represent,” she said. “And where they pass an arbitrary or unreasonable ordinance, this permits an additional avenue to challenge.”

Persons-Mulicka also stressed that the measure is making its first committee stop and could still be “tweaked” to address concerns.

Lawmakers last year approved SB 170, a measure by Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in June.

The measure permitted challenges to local ordinance that a plaintiff contends are “arbitrary or unreasonable.”  The law requires enforcement to be suspended while a court resolves the challenge on an expedited basis. If the court finds in the plaintiff’s favor, it has the authority to award up to $50,000 in attorney fees.

The law exempts emergency ordinances, ordinances related to procurement and budgeting, ordinances required by state and federal law, and ordinances related to growth policy, county and municipal planning, and land development regulation.

HB 1547 would remove the exemptions related to growth management.

“Unfortunately, since last session, we’ve seen some stuff, like land use ordinances, that infringe on property rights, and this just cleans that up,” McCLure said.

Critics, noting that the bill has only been in effect since October 1, urged lawmakers to give it more time to work.

Rebecca O’Hara, deputy general counsel for the Florida League of Cities, warned that the bill would flood local governments with lawsuits.

Shopping malls could file a challenge to a comprehensive plan amendment to stop an Amazon distribution center, neighborhood groups could sue to stop affordable housing, or restaurants would sue to block a zoning change that would permit food trucks, O’Hara said.

The measure would also make it harder for local governments to implement comprehensive plan amendments that the Legislature mandated last year to accommodate solar energy and septic-to-sewer projects to improve air and water quality, O’Hara said.

“Our objective at the Florida League of Cities is to determine what the issue is here that we’re trying to address,” O’hara said.

“Once we’ve identified the problem, our objective is to address that problem without causing the collateral damage that I mentioned.”

Representatives from the Sierra Club, 1,000 Friends of Florida, Ormond Beach, and Volusia County, opposed the bill.

Democratic Rep. Dan Daley, a Coral Springs prosecutor, said he was frustrated that the bill appears to be undoing a compromise that sponsors agreed to only last year.

“This means any yahoo with $400 and a grudge against local government can stop development, can stop ordinances, and it blows my mind,” he said.

But Persons-Mulicka argued that the expansion was “very limited” and that any court challenges would be resolved expeditiously.

“It doesn’t impact development permits, but it’s looking at those ordinances, the regulations that local governments pass, that could be, or are challenged, as arbitrary and unreasonable.”

News in Photos