Sharp growing pains

A Times Editorial
Published February 10, 2008

The Florida Legislature's 2008 session has yet to begin, but a familiar story line on growth and development already is playing out. Having beaten back a more radical citizen initiative to rein in development, builders and the politicians they control in the capital no longer seem interested in striking a middle ground.

Note the calculated redirection from Sen. Victor Crist, the Tampa Republican who sits on the Community Affairs Committee. "Our focus right now," he responded to Times staff writer Craig Pittman, "should be on stimulating the economy, creating jobs and minimizing expenses."

Note the timeworn lament from the Florida Home Builders Association, its spokeswoman complaining that a modest proposal by state Community Affairs Secretary Thomas Pelham "overcomplicates an already complicated system."

This kind of political gamesmanship is precisely the reason that Hometown Democracy nearly made the November ballot with an amendment to require a local referendum any time a city or county wanted to change its comprehensive growth plan. It is the reason voters in several cities, including Sarasota and St. Pete Beach, have adopted their own versions of Hometown Democracy.

It is also the reason that Pelham is offering a legislative proposal to help restore a necessary balance to growth planning. Pelham, who also served as DCA secretary in the years not long after passage of the 1985 Growth Management Act, has brought remarkable clarity to this polarizing debate. His "Citizen's Planning Bill of Rights" is aimed at correcting a glaring abuse of the law: Cities and counties are treating their growth blueprints as though they are written in pencil instead of ink, easily erasable and redrawn.

These blueprints were supposed to guide future development, but Pelham has documented they are changed 12,000 times each year, changes he says are "handed out so often that local plans are no longer meaningful."

One way to fix this broken law is to remove most of the flexibility the Legislature has granted for plan amendments and to make sure that local citizens are not left out of the process. As such, the "Bill of Rights" ought to be the least the Legislature will consider this year. But Pelham is already running into some of the same kinds of resistance he faced in the late 1980s when he first tried to put the law into action.

In case lawmakers missed the obvious, their constituents are demanding greater controls on development growth. They have heard the economic arguments that Sen. Crist has advanced and dismissed them as spurious. In fact, the Florida Chamber of Commerce is among the groups that have argued the state can no longer predicate its future business model on population growth.

Even the businesses that spent millions of dollars to thwart Hometown Democracy from meeting the deadline for this year's ballot acknowledge that the signature-gathering is almost certain to be completed in time for the 2010 election. That means that if the Legislature does nothing to fix the problem, it is handing Hometown Democracy all the help it needs to take a sledge hammer to a problem that requires a scalpel.

Pelham is offering a reasonable middle ground. Too many lawmakers are once again dancing to the developer's old tune, and that will strike a sour chord with the voters.