Cocoa Beach is vanguard of slow-growth movement
COCOA BEACH -- Residents of this beachside town near the Kennedy Space Center have done something uncommon for a municipality in Florida, a state known for its open arms for developers, high-rise condos and golf courses.
They have voted to control growth. Not once, but four times.
While Cocoa Beach is by no means the only Florida city to enact growth restrictions, it is unique in residents' doggedness to make growth limits stick when challenged with lawsuits.
And citizens in this oceanside city, where most of the 13,000 residents seem to own a surfboard, are among a growing number of residents across the state, from Treasure Island on the Gulf Coast to Surfside in South Florida, who are saying "no" to unbridled development at the local level.
"This is going on so much around the state from citizens who don't want to see Florida buried in concrete," said Mike Daughtry, a real estate investor who has fought to maintain building height restrictions in Treasure Island, a town of about 7,500 people just north of St. Pete Beach.
Cocoa Beach was a sleepy, isolated beach community for the first half of the last century. But the arrival of the space program in the late 1950s brought new growth to the region east of Orlando. Many residents are engineers and technicians who help launch Delta rockets and ensure the space shuttles are fit for flying. The town was also the setting for the 1960s television comedy I Dream of Jeannie, which featured a genie who helped out her astronaut "master."
During the past two years, residents of Cocoa Beach have approved referendums on four separate occasions either limiting population density, restricting the heights of buildings, or both. They also have elected the only Green Party member to office in Florida: Vice Mayor Eric Fricker.
"The citizens have spoken," said Skip Fowler, Cocoa Beach's attorney. "You would have to be deaf and blind not to know what the citizens want."
But it hasn't been without a struggle. At each stage, developers challenged the referendum.
Last year, for instance, Cocoa Beach voters approved measures to lower the maximum height of new buildings to 45 feet from 85 feet, restrict population density for homes or apartment buildings to 10 dwelling units per acre from 15 dwelling units per acre, and limit hotels and motels to 28 units per acre from 40 units per acre.
Vacation Beach Inc., which had plans to build a condominium, challenged those measures in court, arguing that the referendum should have been reviewed by the city's Planning Board. A judge ruled in favor of Vacation Beach and the city has appealed.
Cocoa Beach residents voted again in November, for the fourth time, to impose the restrictions. The measure passed by a 2-1 ratio. Both sides are hoping to reach a compromise to allow the city to enact the limits and allow Vacation Beach to proceed with its project.
Furthering their commitment to control growth, residents also voted to require a unanimous vote by city commissioners to increase the height and density restrictions in the future.
Residents would rather keep Cocoa Beach's neighborhoods of 1950s-era, one-story ranch homes with slanted-roof carports and terrazzo kitchen floors than encourage developments such as the 296-room Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront, supporters of the restrictions say.
"Right now, we have a neat quality of life in this city," Fricker said. "That's why people move here. It's still a family place."
Cocoa Beach City Council members also have voted to prevent future hotel and motel developments from being built west of A1A, the main beachside thoroughfare, and south of State Road 520.
Supporters of the restrictions look with horror at the condo canyons and high-rise hotels of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.
"All the land for developing is pretty much gone," said Bill Myers, president of the Citizens Action Committee, an antigrowth group in Cocoa Beach. "What developers are doing now are buying up these mom and pop motels, and then they build up."
But opponents said the new measures infringe on property rights and will hurt tourism.
"I thought it was too extreme and unnecessary," said City Commissioner Ken Griffin.
Leah Selig, executive director of the Space Coast Association of Realtors, said real estate agents were heartened by the defeat last November of Mayor Janice Scott, who was a leader in controling growth.
"There has been a change in elective leadership, and we think it's a positive step," Selig said. "You need to protect the investments that people have made."
Lisa Durgin, the incoming president of the Realtors association, said the overwhelming support for the referendums may have been misleading, since large numbers of property owners aren't year-round residents and didn't get a chance to vote. But Durgin conceded that while she opposed the measures on professional grounds, she secretly thinks they will help preserve Cocoa Beach's charms.
"We don't need to be this big megapolis, but we do need tourism here," she said. "We need the business."
The influx of new residents and a tax structure where local municipalities don't receive much money from the state lead many local officials to believe they need to expand their tax base by embracing new development, said Janet Borneman, development director for 1,000 Friends of Florida, an advocacy group that calls itself a growth management watchdog.
But local governments in prime locales such as Cocoa Beach can control development without hurting business, said Paul Novack, mayor of Surfside, a community of 5,000 people north of Miami Beach.
Surfside, for example, strictly enforces its zoning laws and has granted no variances to the city's 120-feet height limit during the 11 years Novack has been mayor. Meanwhile, renovations and redevelopment have flourished.
"What we've proven is that you don't have to give away the store," he said. "Communities all over the state are waking up to the fact that overdevelopment is causing serious and permanent damage."
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