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Growth proposals prompt fierce debate

Development lobbyists and environmentalists find plenty to oppose in the proposals.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Today, a commission appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush will unveil a stack of bold recommendations that could turn Florida's 16-year-old growth management rules upside down.

But the ink is hardly dry on the report, and the proposals are already facing political trouble.

The Growth Management Commission's provocative ideas -- everything from paying farmers not to develop land, cutting back on state oversight of local planning and asking communities to consider school crowding when they approve new subdivisions -- could face tough opposition in the Florida Legislature.

Development lobbyists are carping that the commission's ideas are confusing and ill-thought out. Environmentalists say the commission is set to abandon hard-won development controls without putting something better in place.

And even the commission itself has suffered infighting, with its two vice chairmen at odds before the report comes out today.

Vice chairman Charles Lee, a lobbyist for Florida Audubon, abruptly voted against the report when the commission voted on a final draft this week. The other 22 members voted for it. Vice chairman Paul Bradshaw -- a Republican lobbyist who is married to Gov. Bush's former chief of staff -- fired off a biting e-mail Tuesday, criticizing Lee for his public opposition to what Bradshaw considered a good compromise document.

"I thought your vote illuminated the self-defeating pathos that typifies the environmental movement: no deal is ever good enough, and given the choice between reasonable compromise and an inferior status quo that justifies your whining, you'll take the status quo every time," Bradshaw wrote.

Bradshaw said Wednesday he stands by his comments; Lee says he's sorry Bradshaw feels that way. But the tiff is just a preview of the rancor that's likely to occur when the commission's work goes before the Legislature this spring.

"I think it's going to have a hard time," said Wade Hopping, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist who represents developers. "The compromises don't seem to have brought together a cohesive document."

The commission tried hard but just didn't have time to flesh out its ideas, said Marcia Elder, a lobbyist with the American Planning Association's Florida chapter. "There's a lot of stuff in that report that they've had zero discussion on as a full commission," Elder said.

Commission member J.D. Alexander, a Republican state representative from Frostproof, said "some of the ideas I don't fully understand what they mean and exactly how they'd be implemented."

Republican lawmakers wanted to make big changes to Florida's 1985 Growth Management Act last year, but the state created a study commission instead. Now, term limits have ushered in 64 freshmen lawmakers who could have a hard time dealing with the complexities of Florida's growth laws.

"It's going to be difficult to get the education level up this session, to have the members comfortable with the concept the commission is putting forward," Alexander said.

What's likely is that the Legislature will take up only parts of the commission report. Bush is interested particularly in "full cost accounting" -- getting communities to calculate the cost of new development -- and the issue of schools and growth. The commission wants to encourage local communities to consider how crowded the schools are when they vote on new development.

Both concepts are likely to face opposition from local governments and developers -- two powerful constituencies.

The commission also wants Florida's Department of Community Affairs to back off on many development decisions and leave them up to local governments unless there's a "compelling state interest" such as natural resource protection or transportation. And it recommends abandoning the developments of regional impact reviews, which were supposed to give all local governments in a region a say-so over big developments.

Environmental groups and development lobbyists oppose the change, saying the commission's idea of "inter-local agreements" will create more, not less, confusion and delay.

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