TALLAHASSEE — State Sen. Keith Perry has proposed Florida Senate Bill 996, which would allow developers to countersue for attorney's fees and legal costs if they would prevail in the legal proceedings, according to staugustine.com.
In SB 996, Perry, a Republican from Gainesville, wrote that the bill was proposed in order to create more balance in consequences “when seeking review of, or defending against, challenges in administrative proceedings by providing in certain situations an award of attorney's fees and costs against the party that does not prevail.”
However, 1000 Friends of Florida — an organization founded “to help build better communities and save special places,” according to its website — does not agree that the proposed bill would be good for the public.
"What the bill does strictly is it changes the standard for when a party can recover attorney's fees against another party in litigation," Thomas Hawkins, the policy and planning director at 1000 Friends of Florida, told the Florida Record.
Hawkins said the current standard is that if the party who filed the lawsuit has no factual basis, the case gets frivolous, and the opposing party could recover attorney's fees.
"And it changes it to something called the substantially justified standard where the court would say, 'Was the party who filed the suit substantially justified in filing a suit?'" Hawkins said. "And if the answer's no, then they would owe attorney's fees. ... The opportunity to get this different standard of review would only be available if the party seeking attorney's fees was a permit applicant and a state-issued permit, it gets challenged in an administrative hearing."
Hawkins said the state has to get involved in a certain set of land-development decisions.
"They are some water permits and some environmental permits," Hawkins said. "But the really big one, from our perspective, is that every time a local government amends its comprehensive plan, you have to have some approval from Tallahassee. The local government actually sends its comprehensive plan to Tallahassee. So the effect of this bill would be any time somebody applies to amend the comprehensive plan to allow development, so when they want to build ..., goes against the existing plans of the community, if anybody challenges their change to the plan, well, they can countersue for attorney's fees and get this new standard, this substantially justified standard."
Hawkins said 1000 Friends of Florida thinks the proposed bill will not allow citizens concerned about the kinds of developments appearing in their communities to speak out against those developments.
"And so, to be clear, this isn't just for any project," Hawkins said. "It's not like you could oppose your neighbor building a house. This is when somebody wants to rewrite the plans of the community. If a citizen thinks that rewrite's a bad idea, before they file a suit, they better know they might have to pay up to $50,000, the developers' attorney's fee."
The bill would give $50,000 at most to the party awarded those attorney's fees on the countersuit.
Hawkins said 1000 Friends of Florida wants to see development that helps preserve the environment and helps boost the economy.
"We think that the best way for Florida to grow while still preserving its valuable environmental attributes is to reinvest in our existing cities," he said. "So existing cities have a lot of empty space, a lot of suburban development that's comprised typically of parking lots. And we want to see development that takes advantage of the opportunities to reinvest in our existing urban areas."