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DeSantis Signs Into Law Latest Wrinkle in Disney Feud

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There is a new wrinkle in the ongoing tussle between Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and the Walt Disney Company.

On Friday, Mr. DeSantis signed a bill into law giving a board that oversees government services at Disney World the ability to void development agreements that had already been approved for the resort.

At least for now, the new law is a relatively minor development in the ongoing conflict between Mr. DeSantis and Disney over the potential expansion of the company’s 25,000-acre theme park resort near Orlando. That is because Disney and the board have already sued each other over the development agreements; the matter is essentially on hold, awaiting to be addressed by the judicial system.

Disney declined to comment on Friday.

The development agreements were approved by a previous, Disney-controlled iteration of the board. The current board, made up of members appointed by Mr. DeSantis this year, contends that the agreements are illegal, and voted to nullify them.

Last week, Disney sued the board and Mr. DeSantis in federal court, claiming “a targeted campaign of government retaliation.” On Monday, the board filed a lawsuit in state court as part of its effort to void the agreements.

The Florida Legislature passed the bill on Thursday. It did not originally involve Disney. As introduced in early March, the bill’s purpose was to update requirements for comprehensive land use planning by municipalities. At the urging of Mr. DeSantis, the part applicable to Disney was added last month. Democrats opposed the amendment, saying that it set a dangerous precedent for state interference with individual company contracts.

“Beyond the Disney drama, let’s just talk about the notion of canceling a contract that you don’t like,” Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state representative from the Orlando area, said during the debate.

The conflict between Mr. DeSantis and Disney started in March of last year, when Disney joined other companies in criticizing a contentious state education law that, among other things, prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for young students. (Opponents labeled it “Don’t Say Gay.”) Mr. DeSantis and his Republican allies in the Florida Legislature immediately started to attack Disney as a “woke” company and began efforts to restrict its long-held autonomy in the state.

They zeroed in on a special tax district created in 1967 that effectively turned Disney World into its own county. It gave Disney unusual control over fire protection, policing, waste management, road maintenance, bond issuance — and, crucially, the planning of real estate development.

In February, lawmakers stripped control of the district’s five-member board from Disney and handed it to the governor. When Mr. DeSantis’s appointees reported for duty, however, they were incensed to discover that the departing board had approved certain development agreements, limiting the new board’s power for decades to come.

One of the agreements gives Disney the ability to build 14,000 additional hotel rooms, a fifth theme park and three smaller parks. The other restricts the use of abutting land; no strip clubs, for instance. Disney World already has four theme parks, two water parks, 18 Disney-owned hotels, a shopping mall and a 220-acre sports complex.

Brooks Barnes

2023-05-05 21:57:50

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