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On growth, small minds don't see big picture

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

Like a riptide that appears benign from the beach while churning menacingly below the waves, a sea change has occurred in Florida government that threatens to sweep away our quality of life.

Under orders from Gov. Jeb Bush, the state agency that oversees growth is quietly abandoning its responsibilities and giving communities more authority to control their own growth.

There is a certain appeal to the notion that people who live in a community, rather than Tallahassee bureaucrats, know what's in their best interest and should have the power to determine their own destiny.

Then there's reality. Pinellas, Dade, Broward and many other Florida counties followed that blueprint and became overcrowded environmental disaster areas.

Florida's abysmal experience with local growth control points out the obvious: Letting the people decide what's best works only when all of the people get an equal voice. When the decision makers listen only to certain constituents, those with large checks in their paws and political clout in their back pockets, the community as a whole gets hosed.

You need look no further than Homosassa to see the governor's master plan at work.

The people have spoken on the Halls River Retreat time-share condo project. Overwhelmingly, they don't want four-story structures built alongside an Outstanding Florida Waterway and into the source of freshwater for the county, the aquifer. They clearly see the danger of adding thousands of people to a community served by one narrow bridge, and they understand the precedent this project sets for similar developments.

The county's planning board, residents who volunteer to serve as watchdogs on development, has reviewed the details and has concluded, again overwhelmingly, that this project should die a quiet death.

But three voices have trumped all of those thousands of others. Three of five county commissioners think it's in your best interest to allow this disaster to unfold.

There are many obvious reasons why this is a mistake, and they constitute the basis of four legal challenges that have been mounted by citizens groups in recent days. Despite statutes spelling out the legal processes by which the public can try to reverse such ludicrous decisions, it should have never come to this.

And, if the governor hadn't yanked the teeth from the state Department of Community Affairs, the legal appeals may not have been necessary.

The agreement that Citrus County and the state reached in 1997 over its comprehensive plan states plainly that development in what is called the Coastal High Hazard Area (basically, land where storm-whipped winds historically do the most damage) cannot be built beyond one unit per 40 acres. No planned developments are allowed there.

The Halls River site is well within the high hazard zone; therefore, the development is not allowed.

The commissioners have told the state that they don't have to live by the agreement. The newly defanged DCA has rolled into a ball and whimpered.

If the stakes weren't so high and serious, comments made by the agency's boss to the Times several months ago in response to stories about the gutting of the department would be laughable.

"Despite what you may have heard or read, the Florida Department of Community Affairs is maintaining its vigilant watch over developments that could, in any way, jeopardize our mutual, statewide priorities. These include protecting our environmental treasures, improving our transportation network and providing an ample, clean water supply," wrote Steven Seibert.

If your side isn't hurting too much from howling at that whopper, try this one: "DCA officials are still reviewing all changes to local comprehensive plans."

I guess that ignoring the comp plan doesn't count as a change.

After creating a 23-person commission to study growth management rules and stacking it with business interests (there was only one environmental voice), Bush last year told the DCA to cut the number of plan reviews in half. How the agency can do that and then have its director say with a straight face that it is still reviewing all comp plan changes sounds an awful lot like fuzzy math at best.

If you feel this is a worry only for folks living in Homosassa, think again. The future of the county, both in new development and redevelopment, is in play.

We have a comprehensive plan that is supposed to regulate where and how Citrus will grow. The state has said we don't have to follow it, and three of our commissioners, who listen to voices other than those of the public, are aching for the chance to bulldoze waterfronts and pour concrete into your drinking water.

This is the obvious danger of leaving it up to a community to control its growth, and the reason the growth management acts were created. It's the reason Bush's quiet gutting of the DCA is so threatening to all of us.

Peter Wallace, a former House speaker and an author of the 1985 growth management law, said it best in a recent Times article:

"I continue to be of the opinion that it was local control that set Florida on the wrong path in a way that has been almost impossible to undo. I can't fathom why we would go back to that."

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