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Manatee County man drops wetlands lawsuit, as law says challenger must pay winner’s legal fees

Friends of the Everglades described the law as a "death knell for smart growth in Florida," and warned "it will effectively end citizen challenges to comprehensive plan amendments."

Despite vocal opposition from members of the community and environmental scientists, the Manatee County commission voted last year to reduce the required size of buffer zones between developed areas and wetlands.

Former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, who is publisher of the Bradenton Times, said developers were the impetus for the rollback, and the alteration of the county’s comprehensive plan was not in the best interest of the public.

He planned to file a legal challenge with an administrative law judge, but had to abandon it due to a 2023 law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis which said anyone who challenges a county’s comprehensive plan in court would have to pay the legal fees of the prevailing party.

The sponsor of that bill, known as SB 540, St. Petersburg Republican Senator Nick DiCeglie, said it was meant to “level the playing” field between developers and local governments and that those suing should have “skin in the game.”

For McClash, it meant the cost to proceed with the challenge could be on the order of $250,000, according to his own estimates.