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Court hears arguments over 2006 ballot issue

The proposed amendment would require voter approval of local governments' changes in growth plans.

Associated Press
Published November 3, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Supreme Court focused Tuesday on a potentially explosive issue voters could face on Election Day 2006: Who gets to decide where new homes, shopping malls and roads are built?

The power now rests with city and county governments, which are required by state law to develop detailed plans to manage growth.

A proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by a grass roots group, Florida Hometown Democracy, would require voter approval for any changes to those growth plans.

To make the ballot in two years, Hometown Democracy must collect a half-million signatures and convince the state Supreme Court the proposed change is fairly explained and deals with only one subject.

So far the group has collected 60,000 signatures.

During Tuesday's oral arguments, justices questioned attorney Ross Burnaman, one of the group's leaders, about the scope of the amendment.

Chief Justice Barbara Pariente asked whether the measure would require voter approval for things like changes in traffic patterns and other issues that force thousands of changes in growth plans.

"Absolutely not," Burnaman replied. "That is the argument that the opponents would like to have you believe, that changing the center line stripe on a highway would be subject to a referendum vote. That is simply absurd and ridiculous."

Justices also questioned whether the ballot summary crossed the line into improper advocacy by referring to the need to protect Florida's natural resources and "scenic beauty."

Burnaman defended the summary.

"Every decision that involves a comprehensive land use plan will ultimately affect the natural resources of the state in one way or the other," he said.

An opposition group, Foundation for Preserving Florida's Future, was represented by attorney Barry Richard, who managed President Bush's 2000 election legal case.

"Clearly this is a radical change in the power of local government," Richard told the justices. "Today one of the broadest exercised and most significant powers of local government is the ability to control land use.

"This would put a screeching halt to a vast array of local land use plans."

The Florida Association of Counties opposes the amendment, and Justice Raoul Cantero asked its attorney, lawyer Arthur England, what other issues besides environmental protection might have to be decided by referendum.

The list includes location of schools, mass transit, housing, coordination with other government agencies and stormwater and sewer projects, according to England, a former justice who sat on the high court from 1975 to 1981.

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