Private property bill aims to protect landowners

On the way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk is a bill that would give Florida property owners greater protections against excess government demands.

HB383 passed the House and Senate in late April and is geared to strengthen Florida’s commitment to protecting private property rights. House co-sponsor Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Sunrise) said, “This bill addresses what happens when the government exacts more than the law allows.”

The 1995 Bert Harris Act was named after its House sponsor, then Agriculture Committee Chairman Bert Harris, Jr., pictured here with his wife several years ago, accepting an award from Florida Agriculture in the Classroom.

The roots of the bill go back to 1995 when what became known as the Bert Harris Act was passed by an impressive, bipartisan 111-to-0 vote. That measure gave property owners a cause of action if they feel their property has been burdened, but not actually confiscated by a governmental entity. The 1995 legislation was named after Rep. Bert Harris, a Democrat from District 77 and its sponsor.

Fast-forward to 2013. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court decided ruled in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District that government cannot deny a land-use permit just because a property owner refuses to bow to unreasonable demands.

In 1994, Coy Koontz Sr. sought permits from the St. Johns River Water Management District to develop a section of his property. He was complying with Florida law, which requires applicants wishing to build on wetlands to offset the resulting environmental damage. Koontz offered to mitigate the environmental effects of his development by deeding to the water management district a conservation easement on nearly three-quarters of his property. The district rejected Koontz’s proposal and said that it would approve construction only if he reduced the size of his development and deeded to the district a conservation easement on the resulting larger remainder of his property or if he hired contractors to make improvements to district-owned wetlands several miles away. Believing the demands to be excessive in light of the environmental effects his proposal would have caused, Koontz sued under the Bert Harris Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision was the culmination of a two-decade battle in lower courts and spurred the creation of HB 383 / SB 284. The bill, sponsored by Edwards, Rep. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) and Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (R-Miami), creates a cause of action for landowners for damages caused by unconstitutional exaction of property by government.

Florida State Rep. Katie Edwards (D-Sunrise) was a sponsor of HB383.

The new bill clarifies that only property that is directly the subject of a governmental regulation or decision may have a cause of action under the Harris Act. It clarifies that settlement options be negotiated at any point of a claim, meaning both before and during litigations. It also creates a cause of action under Florida law if governments impose unlawful exactions as a condition of a requested use of land.

Read HB383 here.

In presenting HB383 for a vote in April, Edwards said that Harris, who is now 95, would be watching the day’s proceedings from his home. She urged members to “honor him by joining me today by voting in favor of this good bill and strengthening the legacy that he began two decades ago.” View Edwards’ presentation here. Skip to the 21:30 mark for her presentation.

“It’s nice that the Legislature continues to support private property rights and keeps the legacy started by Rep. Harris alive,” said Butch Calhoun, FFVA director of government relations.

This article will be updated as the bill reaches the governor’s desk to be signed.

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