Growth law's major effects being felt

Published January 15, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Though the state Legislature passed a new growth management law two years ago, its most important provisions are just taking hold.

According to County Commissioner David Russell, who helped write the law as a state representative, it is living up to its promise as a historic effort to manage growth in Florida.

"It's doing what we were trying to do: Get growth to pay for itself without completely suppressing growth," Russell said.

Not everybody agrees, though they don't have a problem with the law itself. It's just that Hernando County has been doing what the act requires - making developers pay for improvements to roads and other services - for at least two years.

The law may give the county more leverage to extract money from developers, transportation experts say. But it may also limit the amount of money the county can request and how the money can be spent.

"What we were doing worked pretty well," said County Engineer Charles Mixson. "This tightens it up quite a bit."

Though the bill was so comprehensive it covered 136 pages, one of its biggest aims was to update what planners call "concurrency" requirements - the rules stating that public facilities must be available concurrent with or shortly after the completion of any new development.

It added schools to the list of public facilities that need to be in place, a requirement that goes into effect at the beginning of next year.

The act also tightened the requirements for roads, and those went into place Jan. 1. It did include a break for developers who worried that the new rules would shut them out of building strip malls and subdivisions on every overcrowded road in the state.

Called "pay and go," this provision allows developers who pay their share of improvements to substandard roads to build along them, even if expected road improvements would not be finished for several years after the project was completed.

That is similar to what the county began requiring in early 2005 after the state gave a 3-mile stretch of State Road 50 an "F" grade because it was handling far more traffic than it was designed for.

At first the county declared a building moratorium along that part of the road - between High Point Boulevard and the Suncoast Parkway. A month later, in April 2005, it decided to instead seek extra money from developers to help fix the problem, asking them to contribute to frontage roads or other improvements to divert traffic from the state highway.

The projects approved since then have complied with this policy. For example, Diversified Properties, a developer that planned to build a shopping center near the entrance of the Brookridge mobile home community, had agreed to pay the county $1.3-million in transportation improvements before deciding to pull out of the project.

Would the county receive as much with the new state law in place? Probably not, Mixson said.

The law establishes a strict formula for such payments based on the amount of traffic each project is expected to create. Russell said this may increase payments to the county. It is also fairer to developers, he said, because it establishes the true impact of the development.

But Mixson said it gives the county less room to negotiate.

For example, for projects where the current rules require a developer to pay 10 percent of the cost of a road improvement, Mixson said, "before we would have asked for 25 percent. Maybe we would have settled for 15 percent, but we would have asked for 25."

The new law also restricts how that money can be spent. With few exceptions, it must go toward projects that are included in the county's five-year capital improvement plan.

That prevents the county from improvising frontage road designs to take pressure off SR 50. But Ron Pianta, the county development director, thinks the restraints will have little impact on the county.

SR 50 between U.S. 19 and Mariner Boulevard is already on the county's five-year plan, he said. So are some of the roads that will run parallel to the highway that are designed to siphon local traffic.

If the law does prevent building new developments on overcrowded roads that the county does not plan to improve, that may be a positive thing, Pianta said.

The main criticism of the growth management law two years ago was that it didn't really control growth. Critics said it only enabled local governments to pay for more roads to allow more growth.

As the transportation element goes into effect, that may prove not to be the case, Pianta said.

"It allows growth where you are going to do the improvements," he said. "In a sense it does direct growth to the main corridors."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.