For Floridians, enough may finally be enough Growth

By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2008

In the future, 2007 may be remembered as the year Floridians finally gave up their faith that growth is inevitable and, on balance, a good thing.

Beset by water shortages and a sputtering real estate industry, the state's residents discovered that much of the booming growth of recent years was based on speculation and mortgage fraud, not actual need. New subdivisions are filled with empty houses with unkempt lawns, tempting targets for vagrants and burglars. Yet some of the state's natural resources, such as wetlands vital to recharging the underground aquifer, were sacrificed by regulators to accommodate this spurious demand.

Florida still grew in 2007, but not nearly as fast. Last year 35,301 people moved to Florida from another state, which is a lot fewer than the year before - more than 134,000 fewer. Florida slipped from the ninth-fastest growing state to the 19th.

Without customers lined up to buy their properties, development giants like WCI, Lennar and the St. Joe Co. had to shed employees in an effort to just stay in business. But an even greater threat to the growth business has cropped up. Anger over government's repeated acquiescence to developers fueled a drive to put those decisions in the hands of voters, a drive called Florida Hometown Democracy.

More than half a million people signed the petitions to get the measure put before the voters - not quite enough by the Feb. 1 deadline to get it on this year's ballot, but more than enough to guarantee it will have a spot on the ballot in 2010.

Big business and homebuilders' association leaders are horrified by the ramifications of Florida Hometown Democracy, and have been doing everything possible to block it. But state Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham says it's understandable that the public is disillusioned by how the laws intended to manage growth have gone off-track.

When the Legislature passed the original Growth Management Act in 1985, the law said every city and county had to draw up plans for handling future growth, plans that would be reviewed and approved by the state. The law also said those governments could make changes to those plans only twice a year. Since then, though, the Legislature has put 34 exceptions into the law to allow more frequent changes. As a result, Pelham said, state officials sometimes get up to 12,000 plan amendments a year to review.

Plan amendments are "handed out so often that local plans are no longer meaningful," Pelham said. "We don't have a plan we're prepared to live by anymore. We change it if it gets in the way."

So Pelham has proposed changing the law again - but this time, to toughen its approach to growth and deal with the complaints of Florida Hometown Democracy's supporters. The centerpiece of his proposal: a "Citizen's Planning Bill of Rights."

Pelham's proposal would eliminate all but half a dozen of the exceptions that now allow changing growth plans at the drop of a hat. Instead governments would be allowed to amend their plans no more than twice a year, period. And if the regional planning council has recommended against the changes, then local government can only pass them with a supermajority vote - four votes out of five, for instance.

Before any land-use plan changes could be considered, the "Bill of Rights" would require holding a neighborhood or community meeting to talk about them. And no more could developers sandbag their opponents by making last-minute changes to a plan amendment right before a local government votes on it. Instead, no changes could be made less than five days before the vote.

Pelham has other proposals as well - requiring South Florida counties to revamp their plans so they won't conflict with the goals of Everglades restoration, for instance. But his "Bill of Rights" is likely to stir the most controversy.

While groups like Audubon of Florida say they support it, the Florida Home Builders Association opposes it because it "overcomplicates an already complicated system," said spokeswoman Edie Ousley.

Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who serves on the House's committees on the environment and on infrastructure, said the Bill of Rights is exactly what Florida needs. He remembers when he was a city commissioner, "people would come in and complain about something that had been changed at the last minute."

"Plan amendments have gotten out of sight," Glorioso said. "Many of us feel the need to get a better handle on growth management."

But not everyone in the Legislature is as keen on changing the law. Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who sits on the Senate Community Affairs Committee, says his top priority is not tightening growth regulations.

"Our focus right now should be on stimulating the economy, creating jobs and minimizing expenses," Crist said in an e-mail.

To Florida Hometown Democracy leader Ross Burnaman, Pelham's "Citizen's Planning Bill of Rights" sounds nice, but it is likely to stumble because it depends on legislators taking the proper action on something that directly affects some of their major campaign contributors.

"I'm generally skeptical of the Legislature doing anything on the Growth Management Act except mucking it up," Burnaman said. "All they've done to it since 1985 is butcher it."

That's the whole reason why the petition drive is aimed at amending the state Constitution, rather than dealing with the Legislature, he said.

Pelham acknowledged his proposals for change may face a cool reception in the Legislature, especially given the tough economic times. But he contended that's what makes this the perfect moment to make changes.

"The downturn in the economy gives us a chance to catch our breaths," he said.

The Legislature needs to act now, he said, and not wait around hoping the passions behind Florida Hometown Democracy will fade. Even as business leaders battled to keep the amendment off the statewide ballot, individual cities - Sarasota, Sanibel, Yankeetown and St. Pete Beach, to name a few - have passed their own localized versions of it.

"At the local level, it's spreading," Pelham said. "That's why we need to be proactive at the state level and recognize that this is a real problem, and we need to come up with a better alternative."

If the Legislature fails to act, Pelham said, "We're going to deserve what we get."

Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the Times. He can be reached at craig@sptimes.com or 727 893-8530.