What do we really want in Florida's Chapter III?

Published May 21, 2006

I propose a book about Florida with three chapters.

Chapter I is titled "Anything Goes." It covers the late 1800s to the 1980s.

Those were the decades in which America discovered the Sunshine State, tamed it and drained it.

Our mild winters were the first lure, of course. But then something happened that really helped Florida take off.

Here's a hint: Each state can honor two people with statutes in a hall in the U.S. Capitol. One of Florida's two statutes honors the guy whose work led to the invention of air conditioning.

Chapter II of my book is titled, "Let's At Least Pretend." It starts in the 1980s.

By the 1980s, our roads were clogged and crumbling, our wells were dry, and our paradise had lost its luster.

At long last, it became politically possible in this state to talk about doing something to control growth.

The result was a landmark law, the Growth Management Act of 1985, that was supposed to put us on the right track for the new century.

Every local government in Florida had to get serious about its "comprehensive plan." Nobody was supposed to build anything unless the water, the roads, the schools and other services existed to handle it.

Did it do any good?

Some around the margins, I think. In general, construction in Florida is not quite as tawdry as it was in the 1970s. You can't just cut another strip-mall driveway into U.S. 19, or throw up crackerjack-box houses and rinky-dink private sewer plants.

Opponents fighting development have more tools to wring concessions out of builders, such as buffer zones, landscaping and lower density. Florida isn't the Wild West any more.

But as for whether our two-decade experiment with "growth management" has wrought any deep philosophical change, I do not believe it has. The evidence is that our growth only puts us deeper in the hole.

This brings us to Chapter III. It has yet to be titled, but its key plot elements are in place.

Florida stands on the brink of receiving the greatest generation of retirees and potential transplants since the postwar years.

Our widespread conversion of old downtowns and housing stock to new condominium projects may seem, at first blush, to be a short-term reaction to a hot housing market and ridiculous prices. Our policy has been, largely, to say yes to everything and wait for the bubble to burst. It might not.

Cities such as Tampa and St. Petersburg are giddy and delighted with the conversion of their downtowns to high-end condo towers. Smaller and midsized communities eagerly adopt "redevelopment" plans to follow suit. Cities see this growth in terms of a higher tax base and civic pride.

We are well into a fundamental change in our character. Already, we see the backbone of the traditional community - police officers and teachers, nurses and carpenters and plumbers, and many others in the middle class - priced out of housing. We will import the workers we need. Like Palm Beach, Pinellas County will import them over the bridges; other places will rely on whole new suburbs.

If in earlier decades Florida relied too much on cheap, quick subdivisions to lure retired auto and steel workers, in today's world we are focused overly on the high-end condo and its support economy, despite all our lip service to bringing good jobs to our state and diversifying the economy.

It makes our state more vulnerable than ever to the blows of nature.

With the failure of growth management, a violent reaction has broken out at the community level. We have seen it locally, in places such as Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach, where voter revolts have removed local officeholders or imposed tougher rules.

Already, we have seen the same revolt attempted at the state level with the "Hometown Democracy" movement, which seeks to amend the state Constitution to give local voters more control over growth. It is one of our major political battles to come.

It may be, of course, that everything is fine. If the free market turns Florida into Condo World, then maybe it's inevitable.

But if that is not what we want, the first step is to admit that our 20-year-old experiment has failed, and to ask ourselves anew what kind of state we want Florida to be. The answer to that question will provide the title of the third chapter.