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Got ideas on growth? Speak up now

Hernando County wants residents - and not just developers - to be involved and voice their opinions on growth-management issues.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


With tons of asphalt and concrete being poured daily, booming population figures and new developments being birthed at a rate that would make rabbits envious, you might think residents would be pretty familiar with Florida's system for managing growth.

Not so.

A recent Florida State University study found that fewer than one-third of respondents were acquainted with the system, which involves the state Department of Community Affairs, local planning agencies and a comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan, like the title suggests, is designed to integrate a host of often competing elements -- including transportation needs, drinking water availability, large-scale building projects, conservation of land and waste disposal -- into a blueprint for what a community wants to become. Hernando County is now evaluating its comprehensive plan.

The document is not just about dreams of the future. It includes the dirty details of governing. Zoning regulations, ordinances and the building of schools and roads all must be consistent with a county's comprehensive plan. At the local level, for a proposal to become reality, there are two options: conformity with the plan or changing the plan to allow for the proposal.

The Department of Community Affairs requires comprehensive plans to be evaluated for their effectiveness every seven years. Because of the length of the evaluation process, it usually happens once a decade. As part of the review, local planners must involve the public.

The Hernando County Planning Department is taking that requirement seriously as it goes about its evaluation. It recently completed a survey of public opinion on growth and development and scheduled comprehensive plan-related public workshops.

While such outreach might be required to prompt those who complain of sprawl to become involved in planning, there is one group that historically has not needed such prodding: developers.

According to those familiar with the comprehensive planning process, it is development interests who stay on top of changes. After all, their wallets are at stake.

"I hope the public gets involved and gives us some direction," said Hernando County planner Jim King, "because if they don't, the only people who will will be the developers."

Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida, said the complexities of growth-management policy in Florida are often an impediment to public input, making it easier for those in the know to profit.

"The current system," Lee said, "lends itself to being used by players who understand its twists and turns, and it is almost exclusionary of the average citizen."

Facing many of the same pressures seen today, legislators in 1975 made their first attempt at regulating growth statewide with passage of the Local Government Comprehensive Planning Act.

Hernando County adopted its first comprehensive plan under the act in 1981, though a decade before a private engineering firm had produced a growth blueprint under contract. The 1975 state law was replaced in 1985 with the Growth Management Act, which was refined in 1993.

These legislative actions usually were heralded as the instrument that would save Florida from becoming one long stretch of highway, big-box stores and cheap siding. King and Lee both said the grand promises have not been fulfilled.

While 300 to 400 workers are needed to review the tens of thousands of comprehensive plan documents filed with the DCA every year, Lee said, the agency has a staff of about 30 people to do the the job.

The state legislature is considering folding the DCA into the Department of State, a move whose effect on Florida's growth management scheme is a matter of speculation.

"The statements being made by the governor's office and the DCA is that they don't expect the transfer of the agency to occasion much change," Lee said. "Whether it is true or not is going to depend on a lot of different factors."

Lee said he would like to see the state get out of detailed local planning and focus on more rigorous regulation of growth on a larger scale to ensure that imperiled ecosystems such as the Everglades survive.

From King's perspective, the level of state involvement in comprehensive planning is largely insignificant. It is the resolve of local populations and governments, he said, that makes the difference.

"Communities that want to develop wall to wall will do that," King said, "whereas communities who want to control growth tend to find a way."

Results from the recent Planning Department survey suggest the will exists in Hernando County. Those who responded said they wanted growth limited to defined areas, and they chose planning as the government service they most wanted to see more of.

According to King, the county's comprehensive plan has done a good job directing growth. But there is room for improvement, he said, particularly when it comes to defining commercial areas and what can go near them.

"Some places, the guidance it gives is not clear enough to tell us what it is we need to be doing," King said of the current plan.

County Commission chairwoman Betty Whitehouse has often spoken publicly of her interest in growth planning and her desire to see the plan evaluation be a broad-based community effort.

Whitehouse acknowledged the historical interest of developers in the planning process and the difficulty of generating public involvement. However, she said, residents' interest in growth planning is increasing, and she intends to listen carefully at the planned workshops.

The chairwoman said she wanted to see a plan that will ensure that a visitor in 20 years will be struck by Hernando County's green spaces, its well-paying jobs and its quality of life.

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

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