Florida development bill could force Manatee County to approve permits within 30 days

An all-encompassing bill heading for the governor’s desk is set to wreak havoc on the Manatee County Building and Development Services Department.

John Barnott, the department director, informed the board at a Tuesday afternoon budget session that strict guidelines may come into effect that significantly raise the bar for plan review. HB 7103 is the same bill that gives private providers more authority to approve permits and would prevent municipalities from requiring affordable housing.

The Board of County Commissioners was previously briefed on the harm the bill may cause by county spokesman Nick Azzara. In an April 25 email, he wrote that “HB 7103 creates tough new turnaround times for building departments already under huge workloads,” and urged them to let their representatives know they were against it.

If Gov. Ron DeSantis signs HB 7103 into law, local governments will be required to review building plans and get back to the developer within 30 days to note any deficiencies in the application. If not, the plan could be considered approved, Barnott explained.

“Is that even possible?” Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace asked.

Barnott assured her that it was not. At least, not with the BADS department’s current staffing situation. There are about 34 planners and technicians who review plans in the building department, but HB 7103 would force the county to expand significantly.

“If this goes into effect, we need nine more planners right now,” Barnott said.

That expansion would cost the county anywhere between $600,000 and $750,000 in salaries, Trace said, but adding all of those planners to the department wasn’t an immediate priority for this year’s budget. The law, which would go into effect July 1, could be cushioned by the recruitment of a handful of Manatee Technical College graduates as part of an apprenticeship program.

The BADS department also has “strong, healthy reserves,” according to Barnott, and the salaries for new staff required to handle the new workload would be paid for with a budget amendment brought before the board.

Barnott said the bill may have been passed by the Florida Legislature because other local governments in the state are notoriously slow to approve or review building plans.

To brace the county for future growth and the possibility of a strict new law, Commissioner Misty Servia, who has a background in planning, argued that commissioners should encourage more staffing in the planning department.

“We need, in my opinion, to be planning for our future. That’s is the whole reason I ran for this seat,” Servia told her fellow commissioners. “This area needs to be the best it can be. Well, it’s going to be whatever happens if we don’t plan for it.”

“I promise you that we’re going to continue to grow,” she added. “And when you plan for it in advance, you can do it with less aches and pains.”

Commissioner Betsy Benac, who also has a planning background, spoke to importance of looking ahead.

“Lakewood Ranch, when I first started here, was a planned community. Well guess what, Lakewood Ranch is almost built out, so what’s next?” Benac said.

Two new planning positions have been requested in the county’s budget for next year. The county’s next budget session will be held 1:30 p.m.Wednesday in the County Administration Building in downtown Bradenton.