News & Media
judge's gavel
Classen Rafael / EyeEm / Getty Images

Leon County Judge Rejects Development Law Challenge

A law made it riskier to challenge new developments by changing the way attorneys are paid, but a judge said the Dept. of Economic Opportunity isn’t the proper party to sue.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Leon County circuit judge Wednesday rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of a 2019 state law that opponents say will have a “chilling effect” on people who want to fight local development decisions.

The plaintiffs, the organization 1000 Friends of Florida and Pasco County resident Robert Howell, targeted part of the law that deals with attorney fees in disputes about whether local development orders are consistent with comprehensive growth-management plans.

Under the law, losing parties in lawsuits about development orders can be forced to pay the attorney fees of “prevailing” parties – a change that opponents say creates huge financial risks for citizens who want to challenge local government approvals of development plans. The lawsuit, in part, alleged violation of constitutional due-process and First Amendment rights.

But after hearing arguments Wednesday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper said he would grant motions by the defendants, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson and Secretary of State Laurel Lee, to dismiss the case.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is the state land-planning agency, while Lee is the custodian of laws. Cooper did not delve deeply into the constitutional issues raised by the plaintiffs, but he agreed with state attorneys that Lawson and Lee and their agencies are not responsible for carrying out the law.

“In this case, I don’t see the DEO (the Department of Economic Opportunity) as being the proper party defendant because, as it relates to this statute, I have not heard articulated to me the enforcement functions that the department has related to this statute or this issue,” Cooper said.

He said a proper defendant could be a local government that has issued a development order, adding, “I think there are legitimate circumstances in which this constitutionality of the statute can be raised.”

During the arguments, 1000 Friends of Florida attorney Richard Grosso said the constitutionality of the law needs to be addressed because it leads to citizens facing the risks of paying attorney fees of local governments and potentially landowners or developers if challenges to development orders are unsuccessful.

“The gravamen of this complaint is, nobody but the wealthiest of citizens can even take that chance,” Grosso said. “1000 Friends of Florida … Mr. Howell, members of 1000 Friends, when they go to their attorneys and say, ‘We’ve got a development that’s going to impact our homes, impact our property, impact our communities, let’s bring this legal challenge,’ lawyers have to say, ‘Well, before you do that, you’ve got to know, if you don’t win, if you try to enforce the law and don’t win, you will be hit with automatic attorneys’ fees.”

The lawsuit said Howell fought a development order related to mining in Pasco County but dropped the litigation last year because of passage of the law dealing with attorney fees.

Source: News Service of Florida