Miami-Dade County

Cities complain that in the session just ended, Legislature stepped on local control

Last July, bartenders picked up 437 straws along a two-block stretch of Miami Beach. The city banned plastic straws in sidewalk cafes and other public spaces, but the Legislature overrode the city.
Last July, bartenders picked up 437 straws along a two-block stretch of Miami Beach. The city banned plastic straws in sidewalk cafes and other public spaces, but the Legislature overrode the city.

For the conservative majority of the Florida Legislature, the government closest to the people does not necessarily govern the best.

When the legislative session ended on Saturday, local governments across South Florida began to take stock of the powers that had been stripped away from them and given to the state. They include the ability to ban plastic straws, require tree removal permits and regulate vegetable gardens. Local governments also face new restrictions on community redevelopment agencies.

Other municipal laws were targeted but ultimately survived, including the ability to regulate short-term rentals and ban businesses from using single-use carryout plastic bags.

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Ron Book, a lobbyist whose firm represents more than 20 cities and counties in Florida, said his clients have grown increasingly concerned about what they see as the Legislature preempting their powers.

“I think the last three years there’s been a real focus here on preemptions,” he said. Both former House Speaker Richard Corcoran and current Speaker José Oliva “do not believe in government interfering in people’s lives.”

Before the session began in earnest, Oliva told reporters one of his guiding principles would be to roll back what he saw as excessive government regulation.

“The greater the government involvement in something, the less there is true free market,” he said, referring in particular to education and healthcare. “The less that there’s competition ... the price goes up.”

But some local officials say the new laws usurp their authority.

Miami Beach City Attorney Raul Aguila said local governments should be concerned about the state Legislature’s “increased ‘weaponizing’ of the concept of preemption.”

“Year after year, the Legislature gets bolder and more outrageous in using this to prohibit local governments from passing progressive legislation,” Aguila said in an email. “Among the most sacred rights granted to cities under the Florida Constitution is their right to ‘home rule,’ which means that all cities have the individual right to craft their own local laws, as they see fit, so long as those laws don’t conflict with State or federal law.”

During this legislative session, Miami Beach officials were concerned about lawmakers invalidating their restrictions on plastic straws and another bill, which didn’t pass, that would have limited the ability of local governments to regulate short-term rentals, such as those offered by Airbnb.

Miami Beach passed a law last year banning plastic straws from city property including marinas, parks and sidewalk cafes. The city also aggressively enforces a ban on short-term rentals in most residential areas. Now, if the governor signs the bill, Miami Beach will be prohibited from enforcing its plastic straw ban for five years.

“The Legislature has a lot of power but sometimes restraint should be the wiser course,” said Mayor Dan Gelber, a former state legislator who spent a decade at the state Capitol. “Our state is such a mosaic that one-size-fits-all rarely does.”

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As the bill moved through the Legislature last week, Gelber posted a video in which city officials and environmental advocates argue that plastic straws harm marine life, pollute beaches and clog drainage systems designed to prevent flooding. The video, which Gelber also shared with lawmakers, warned that if the state stepped in, it “would have a disastrous impact” on the environment and economy in Miami Beach.

Gelber said he believed the plastic straw bill and similar efforts were motivated by business interests. “I always worry that some large industry has just had its way,” he said.

Neither the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tobin Overdorf, nor Miami-Dade legislators who voted in favor of it responded to requests for comment. The bill had passed both chambers but had yet to be signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis Tuesday evening.

News that the city’s plastic straw ban had been reversed was better received by businesses with sidewalk cafes. Although the ban doesn’t apply to private property, it does apply to the sidewalk cafes that line Ocean Drive and other touristy areas.

David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe on Ocean Drive, said he hadn’t yet decided whether his business would continue to use paper straws. The paper straws are more expensive and less effective, Wallack said, but unless they have a big impact on customer service, “my preference is to be environmentally friendly.”

Al Serrano, beverage manager at News Cafe, another Ocean Drive restaurant, said he didn’t foresee the business “going back” to plastic. But, he added, the alternative straws cost roughly four times as much as the plastic ones and with the summer slow season approaching, his bosses might be looking to cut costs.

Some Miami Beach businesses without sidewalk cafes have given up single-use plastics voluntarily as part of a city campaign to encourage businesses to switch to alternatives.

In Miami, officials were closely watching a bill that curtailed local government’s abilities to force real estate developers to include affordable units in new buildings.

As the sponsor of a small-scale ordinance that provides developers density bonuses in exchange for a percentage of affordable units in the same project in a swath of land north of downtown, Miami Commissioner Ken Russell opposed a version of the law that passed in the House. The final version still took away the ability of cities and counties to require construction of affordable housing without providing additional building rights.

“Although I’m disappointed with the state’s action, I appreciate that the legislation does not eliminate good work being done in our city,” Russell said in a statement. “Our first-of-its-kind inclusionary zoning ordinance which I introduced in the city of Miami has helped alleviate a lack of workforce housing options in the largest city in Florida’s most populous county.”

Miami-Dade tried unsuccessfully to stop a bill set to roll back a county’s ability to regulate where cellphone companies put utility poles to hold transmission equipment. SB 1000 passed both chambers, and is awaiting a signature by DeSantis.

“We have much less authority than we had last week,” assistant county attorney Dennis Kerbel told Miami-Dade commissioners during a meeting Tuesday.

The legislation has Miami-Dade leaders worried they won’t be able to use the zoning code to limit where cellular providers install new poles to improve coverage.

“Wow,” said Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz. “That means they could put poles pretty much wherever they want.”

Audrey Edmonson, chairwoman of the commission, said the bill was an example of the county losing battles in Tallahassee. “That’s why, for the next session, we all have to go up there,” she said.

In Coral Gables, a ban on single-use plastic bags will stay in effect after a bill that would have negated the local law didn’t pass. But another bill will loosen local permit requirements for removing and trimming trees on private property if the governor signs it.

The bill’s proponents argued the new law would empower property owners to remove dangerous trees without government red tape. Commissioner Vince Lago said the Gables, known for its tree canopy, should be allowed impose its own regulations on trimming and cutting down trees. With plans to raise the issue at the next commission meeting, he said he sees a clear connection among property values, residents’ quality of life and the city’s trees.

“We think it’s important that when an individual wants to trim or cut down a tree, especially a specimen tree, they should go through the proper protocols at the city,” he said.

Book, the lobbyist, said that the final tally could have been worse for local governments. A bill prohibiting red light cameras, which Miami Beach and other South Florida cities have, failed, as did a bill preventing local governments from banning the sale of certain sunscreens believed to harm coral reefs. Key West already has a sunscreen ban in place and Miami Beach has explored the idea. Another bill that would have stripped away a range of local government authorities, including restrictions on the sale of nicotine products, also failed to pass.

But Book said that given the climate in Tallahassee, he encourages local governments to carefully consider any new restrictions.

“I urge local governments to be sensitive because I believe the Legislature is looking hard at things,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has thwarted local laws. Municipalities were prevented from enacting local gun restrictions in the wake of the Parkland school shooting because of a state law that establishes a $5,000 fine and removal from office for mayors who try to enact their own gun laws. A group of Florida mayors filed a lawsuit last year challenging the state preemption.

Miami Beach also passed an ordinance in 2016 to raise the minimum wage locally despite a state prohibition on local wage hikes. The city lost a subsequent court battle.

Herald staff writers Elizabeth Koh and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.