MANATEE — A controversial growth management measure sponsored by state Sen. Mike Bennett was ruled unconstitutional Thursday, and ordered expunged from state records.
A judge concluded that the Bradenton Republican’s measure, Senate Bill 360, was unconstitutional because it would require local governments to spend funds, or take an action requiring the expenditure of funds, without providing monies to accomplish it.
The measure violated what is known as the “unfunded mandate provision” of the state constitution, according to an order issued in Tallahassee by Chief Circuit Court Judge Charles A. Francis.
The court noted that 246 counties and municipalities in certain areas were required to adopt changes to their comprehensive plans, and that the cost of compliance ranged from $41,264-$104,170 each; or between more than $10 million and $25 million statewide, according to the order.
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Attorneys representing defendants in the case — four top Florida officials — had argued that any cost would be insignificant.
“We think it’s a very good ruling,” said attorney Jamie A. Cole, who represented local governments in the case.
“We believe the legislature did not follow the constitution; it is clear the legislature cannot pass laws that force cities and counties to spend significant amounts of money without following certain procedural rules and voting requirements,” Cole said.
Bennett, an electrical contractor, said he had asked state officials not to appeal the judge’s ruling, saying, “I really think when you spend taxpayers’ money for government suing government, there is something wrong.”
When the bill was under consideration, no one from local governments had complained to him about its provisions, Bennett said.
As for the verdict itself, “That’s what judges do — they try to legislate from the bench. We’ll just fix it next year, that’s what we’ll do,” Bennett said.
The bill caused a fire storm of controversy when it passed last year, and was signed by Gov. Charlie Crist, who admitted his administration’s growth management expert had misgivings about its wisdom.
Supporters said the law would strengthen the economy, while opponents predicted it would increase urban sprawl and aggravate traffic gridlock.
The bill principally allowed developers in the most urban counties to add more housing developments without expanding roads and by allowing counties and cities to designate new urban areas that also would be exempt from certain road-building requirements.
The measure would have had limited impact in unincorporated Manatee County, since it had no dense urban areas as defined by the state, said Nick Azzara, county information outreach coordinator.
It would have affected the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto, since they were deemed dense urban areas, Azzara said.
Florida House Speaker Pro Tempore Ron Reagan, who had not yet seen the judge’s order, noted, “S.B. 360 was a good piece of legislation that ultimately would benefit the people of the State of Florida. I’m sorry to hear the judge’s decision, and hope the legislature next year will address it again.”
Developer Pat Neal, of Neal Communities, said, “I think it gives the legislature a wonderful opportunity to go back and think about Florida’s growth management system, and deal with it comprehensively, rather than piecemeal.”
He added, “I would also say Sen. Bennett, who will be chairman of one of the important committees, will have a lot to do with it.”
— The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.