From restricting abortion rights to allowing residents to carry concealed firearms without permits, and requiring most businesses to verify employees are legal residents, Florida lawmakers this month concluded one of their most controversial and busiest legislative sessions in recent years.
But state lawmakers also passed other less-publicized legislation — a total of 356 bills and a record $117 billion budget — many of which could have significant impacts to Central Florida counties.
Kelley Teague, Orange County’s director of legislative affairs, described the session as “challenging for local governments” because many of the bills that made it through both chambers of the Florida Legislature eroded “home rule,” the autonomy to govern and regulate locally.
In Seminole County, for example, officials voiced concerns with the Live Local Act, a $711 million effort to construct more affordable housing across the state, saying it could lead to high-rise apartment complexes within the protected Wekiva River Protection Area and designated high-tech corridors.
According to the law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 29 and effective July 1, a county must approve a multi-family development, such as an apartment building, in an area already zoned for commercial, industrial or mixed-use if at least 40% of the units are defined as affordable under the state’s guidelines.
A county also could not restrict the density nor the height of the proposed building below the tallest building, or three stories, within a mile of the proposed development, regardless of the county’s current regulations.
Orange County leaders worry the law may interfere with its proposed land-use blueprint, Vision 2050.
The law also forbids local governments from imposing rent control measures like the 10% cap on rent hikes that nearly 60% of Orange County voters endorsed in last November’s elections.
In Seminole, the county currently has regulations against high-density developments within its Wekiva River Protection Area, which extends around the river designated as an “outstanding Florida water” by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
“It’s not a bad bill, but they need to revisit it,” said Tricia Johnson, Seminole’s deputy county manager, of the Live Local Act. “The Legislature did not take into consideration areas that are protected.”
Seminole Commissioner Lee Constantine, who is also president of the Florida Association of Counties, agreed, and he added that the Live Local Act “could have potential unintended consequences” for local governments across the state when it comes to controlling development.
A developer, for example, could request to build a high-rise apartment building with affordable units near the Altamonte Mall, which sits less than a mile from the 18-story Majesty Building, officials said. Or someone could apply to build an apartment complex in areas that a local government may have already designated for high-tech growth, such as portions of Seminole International Parkway corridor.
“That’s why this needs to be fleshed out,” Constantine said.
Oscar Anderson, of The Southern Group, Seminole’s lobbyist, said he expects the Legislature to make some modifications to the Live Local Act in next year’s session.
“There’s a lot of challenges with it,” he said. “We fully anticipate that there will be some tweaks and guardrails … in the next session.”
Seminole officials also expressed concerns about a bill awaiting DeSantis’ approval that increases by $7 million to $42 million the amount that Seminole must contribute to the Florida Retirement System.
“That’s nothing to sneeze at,” Constantine said about the additional amount. “That’s something that we didn’t have planned.”
Seminole also anticipates receiving $1 million from the state’s proposed budget to help pay for the conversion of hundreds of homes near the Wekiva River in west Seminole from septic tanks to sewer lines. The county also is allocated $1 million for stormwater drainage improvements in the historic Black community of Midway.
“Overall, it was a very busy year,” Anderson said about this year’s Legislative session. “There were probably more protests than I’ve ever seen in the Capitol building and more money in the budget than we’ve ever seen. So it kind of summarizes the year.”
In Osceola County, officials expressed gratitude over the roughly $4 billion investment in transportation funding from DeSantis’ Moving Florida Forward infrastructure initiative. The initiative aims to expedite transportation projects over the next four years to alleviate congestion, a factor many residents often voice concerns over in Osceola County.
The initiative that the legislature approved will fund and expedite multiple projects across the state; the three largest are in Osceola County. Interstate 4 from Champions Gate to Osceola Parkway will get a $1.45 billion investment; a Poinciana Parkway extension connector from County Road 532 to State Road 429 received $1.318 billion; and I-4 from U.S. 27 to Champions Gate received $635 million in funding.
Another win for county officials was receiving $1.8 million for Buenaventura Lakes stormwater improvements from the General Appropriations Act. Buenaventura Lakes suffered massive flooding during Hurricane Ian and this drainage improvement project was a top priority for county officials.
In Osceola County, the Live Local Act left commissioners at a recent workshop with many unanswered questions.
Commission Chairwoman Viviana Janer asked county staff to take a deeper look into how the Live Local Act will impact the commission’s authority.
The act granted over $8 million in State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program funding for the county, St. Cloud and Kissimmee. SHIP funding provides funds to local governments as an incentive to produce and preserve affordable homes.
Janer said certain districts have many planned developments in commercial and industrial areas that, under this law, would be forced to build affordable housing instead.
“Not that we don’t need affordable housing but we have language in place for a reason,” Janer said.
She asked county staff to look into whether planned commercial or industrial development could be allowed instead of affordable housing in certain districts.
Janer said she wants clarification on the definition of what the state considers affordable housing and is worried that projects deemed affordable will not stay affordable for long.
“This is a crucial issue,” Janer said.
State and federal legislators who represent Osceola County will continue to discuss the legislative impact on Wednesday at Osceola Update 2023, hosted by the Osceola Chamber of Commerce.
As Orange County wrestles with an affordable housing crisis and other issues, Mayor Jerry Demings said “erosion and preemption of local authority does not work in the best interests of the citizens in the long term.”
His concerns were echoed by commissioner Nicole Wilson, whose west Orange district includes 25,000 acres owned by the Walt Disney Co., which had largely self-governed its properties for 56 years until a company executive criticized legislation prohibiting classroom instruction or discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity.
She described the Legislature’s actions to limit Disney’s autonomy as “retaliatory.”
“I always say the most dangerous season in Florida is not hurricane season, it’s legislative season, and it continues to be the case,” Wilson said.