Four awful new state laws that punish citizens

July 29, 2019 7:00 am

It’s never been more perilous for a Florida citizen or a local government to stand up for what they believe than it is right now.

That’s because the Florida Legislature passed laws this spring specially designed to shut down dissent, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed them into law.

DeSantis got public accolades for vetoing one bad bill that said local governments aren’t allowed to ban plastic straws. But look at the much-worse bills he signed into law to benefit corporations, developers, retail giants, and Big Agriculture:

— Under a sweeping new law that got little attention when it passed the Legislature (HB 829), if a local government passes an ordinance on something that’s already covered by a state law, and the state or some other entity (like a multinational corporation with deep pockets) sues, the local government has to pay attorney’s fees for the winning side.

So, if your community wants to pass, say, an anti-littering ordinance that’s tougher than state law, your city or county is now a sitting duck for a lawsuit, and your tax dollars could end up going to the corporate attorneys who steamrolled your local initiative. The bill’s title was simply “Attorney Fees and Costs” presumably to make it a more effective Trojan Horse.

— A really bad environmental problem in Florida – and one that doesn’t get as much attention as it should – is the industry that spreads partially treated human sewage sludge all over agricultural land as fertilizer. The sludge gets into groundwater and waterways, where it gooses harmful algae outbreaks and spreads pharmaceutical residues. You might think, in a state that depends on clean water for tourism (and for, um, drinking), that your state government would take the initiative to clean up this sludge, instead of continuing to issue permits to let people slather it all over the place. (The state has a kinder-sounding name for it: “biosolids.”)

An odious law sponsored by Republican state Reps. Anthony (“Yes I wore blackface but my black friend thought it was cool”) Sabatini of Central Florida and Pensacola’s Mike (“let’s laugh about killing gays”) Hill, actually bans local governments from passing stronger ordinances to restrict the “land application” of “biosolids.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection is only just now setting some new state requirements for sludge spreading, and if history is any guide, the department is getting a lot of help in that effort from Big Ag and Big Sewage lobbyists. Once those state regulations are done, that’s it. State law applies everywhere, and locals who want tighter rules be damned.  (The deadline to comment on the state’s proposal is today at this link.)

— A new law (HB 7103) takes direct aim at any citizen who dares to challenge land-use and development. It was sponsored by three Republican state Reps. who have a keen interest in giving more power to agriculture operations and developers: Republican state Rep. Rick (“Let’s shut down citizen ballot initiatives”) Roth, whose family has a sugar cane, rice and vegetable farm near the Everglades; state Rep. Jason Fischer from Jacksonville, an engineer who works for a company that provides geotechnical engineering to strengthen building foundations, sewers, highways, airports and more; and Pinellas County Rep. Chris Sprowls, an attorney who will be House Speaker next year. The national law firm that Sprowls works for represents, among other groups, developers.

Say you live near a piece of forest or wetlands and you find out it’s going to get developed. Say you and your neighborhood association oppose certain aspects of the development. Under the new law (HB 7103), if you mount a legal challenge over how that development violates the community’s plan for growth- – for example, wetlands destruction – and you lose, you now have to pay the attorney’s fees for the developer. In some cases, that pricetag might be six (or even eight) figures. That right there is what you call a “chilling effect.” Worth noting: Florida already has a law to handle “frivolous lawsuits” – this new law expands the-loser-pays-attorneys-fees to all development challenges. Florida also already has a “Right to Farm” Act, which makes it harder to challenge agricultural operations.

The state abolished its land-planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs, years ago. As it stands now, citizen enforcement is the only check to stop development that doesn’t follow a community’s local growth plan – making the new provision particularly galling. It was slipped into the law by St. Petersburg Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes – whose bio lists “real estate” as his occupation. The law to punish people who challenge development  “was never introduced in committee, never analyzed by legislative staff, never subjected to public testimony and never debated by legislators,” according to the growth management group 1000 Friends of Florida.

“We don’t believe a majority of Representatives and Senators would have supported the amendment if they recognized its devastating impact on Floridians and their hard-won right to shape the future in their communities,” a 1000 Friends of Florida legislative update notes.

— Do you like trees? It’s now a lot harder to protect one, thanks to a new Florida law that says local governments can’t require someone to get a permit to prune, trim, or remove “dangerous” trees on private property. Local governments are also now prevented from requiring someone to replant a tree to replace one that’s been axed.

The kicker is that the state law creates a new enforcer – a “certified arborist” or landscape architect – rather than a government environmental official that you fund with your tax dollars.  This arborist or landscape architect who certifies that a tree must be axed is likely to be employed by developers, utilities, road builders – you name it.

The new tree law, HB 1159, was co-sponsored by the above-mentioned Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini and Republican Rep. Mike La Rosa, a Chamber of Commerce darling and formerly state chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) “bill mill” that peddles cut-and-paste right-wing legislation nationwide. Multi-millionaire Sen. Ben Albritton, who is in the citrus business, helped pass this law.

Every year, the Legislature chips away at citizen rights. It’s already a tough world out there for anyone who wants to take a stand. Just ask 78-year-old Maggy Hurchalla, who tried to stop a mine in Martin County, on the southeast coast north of Palm Beach. Hurchalla – who served 20 years as a county commissioner – has been in court the last five years fighting a $4.4 million judgment the developer won against her after she tried to stop the mine.  They seized her aging Toyota and her kayak, among other things. She’s appealing the decision, citing her rights under the First Amendment.

Not everyone is as plucky and brave as Maggy, a Florida native who spent her growing-up years in an untamed paradise.

In seeking to get the judgment overturned, her legal team wrote that “The decision raises troubling questions for citizens who seek to be heard by their government.”

“Facing the spectre of millions of dollars in damages, the exercise of First Amendment rights will be effectively eliminated. The very citizens impacted by government’s decisions concerning human health, the environment and other issues of importance to Floridians would be afraid to speak up.”

One thing is clear: the only way to keep our rights is to keep fighting for them.

Hurchalla, who I have known for over 30 years, says she “can’t think of anything better to do” during her golden years “than defend the First Amendment. Can you?”

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.