Growth report draws questions
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001
INVERNESS -- In one sitting, county officials last week described parts of the report as ambiguous, astounding and even scary.
Sure, the Governor's Growth Management Study Commission report calls for giving local governments the final say in most development decisions, something county officials have advocated for years.
But the report also recommends removing some of the state safeguards against hyperdevelopment. Commissioner Gary Bartell said those recommendations, if implemented, could mean a "catastrophe" for growth-management efforts in Citrus County.
"It appears to me what's happening is a shift of responsibility from the state government to the regional and local level, and that's not all bad," Bartell said. "But the oversight that the state has provided to make sure there was a state plan backed up by quality growth management for local government -- that seems to be lost in this whole shift."
"It's gone so far from what it was originally represented to be, it's scary," Commissioner Vicki Phillips said.
Recommendations in the 39-page report include:
Replacing the state Comprehensive Plan with a two-sentence vision statement supporting a vibrant economy and good quality of life. The local comprehensive plans, which were modeled after the state plan, would remain in effect, but officials fear the local plans could easily be changed if there were no state plan setting the ground rules for development.
Limiting state Department of Community Affairs review to only those projects that may affect natural resources, transportation facilities or natural disaster preparedness on a statewide level.
All issues outside those limited categories would be decided locally, with the possibility of appealing certain decisions to the regional planning council.
Bartell is particularly concerned that projects affecting water are not specifically named as those warranting state review.
"It's so evident that with water quality and quantity, with what has happened over the last 10 or 15 years with growth management, to have the state turn their backs on that type of an issue is just astounding to me," Bartell said.
Changing the standards for approving new developments. Instead of requiring developers to show "concurrency," which means there are adequate roads and water and sewer lines to serve the proposed facility, developers would show the costs and benefits of the project on a "balance sheet."
Commissioner Jim Fowler said the state should not do away with concurrency, which he said was one of the best parts of the present system. The requirement ensures that development only occurs in areas that can handle it, he said.
At this point, the recommendations are just that -- the opinions of a 23-member board appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush last summer to review the growth-management system. It is up to the Legislature to decide this session what, if anything, should be done to change a system that is criticized by developers, environmentalists and government officials alike.
And despite their concerns about the report, Citrus County officials are the first to call for reforming the growth-management system.
"We're not saying the existing system is perfect," county Development Services Director Gary Maidhof said. "There is room to work here. We just think the pendulum swung too far."
A family affair
There was a time in Citrus County, just more than a decade ago, when the county's comprehensive plan would have allowed wall-to-wall commercial development along all major roadways.
Think U.S. 19 in Pasco County.
Before that plan became a reality, however, the state Department of Community Affairs stepped in and forced Citrus officials to reduce the amount of commercial space to roadside areas called nodes.
Although local officials were bitter about the state's involvement at the time, most officials today are grateful for the intervention.
"Those are the types of safeguards that you get with the oversight of a state agency that looks at it at more of a distance than we do," Bartell said.
The governor's commission report describes those days as a time when the state guided the counties as a parent leads a child. But it also notes that times have changed: "It is time to recognize that through experience and maturity, our communities have grown up."
Local developers agree wholeheartedly.
Avis Craig, the county's planning director during the mid 1980s, said Citrus officials were "unsophisticated" then when it came to growth management.
"It's taken a long time, but we've come to a point where our local government is sophisticated enough to be able to handle the responsibility of reviewing development," said Craig, who now is the director of development for the Villages of Citrus Hills.
Clark Stillwell, an attorney who represents the developer of Black Diamond and Meadowcrest, said developers also have matured.
"The quality of development has improved remarkably since (the 1985 state Growth Management Act) passed, but whether that's attributable to the marketplace or growth management, I don't know," he said. "Growth management may be a part of it, but the marketplace demands better development."
County officials say there are areas where they have outgrown the need for direct state involvement.
As it is now, a request to change the zoning for a piece of land larger than 10 acres requires two hearings before the county Planning and Development Review Board, two hearings before the County Commission, and a review by the state Department of Community Affairs. Then it comes back to the county for two more hearings before the planning board and the County Commission.
In some cases, that second round of hearings is redundant, officials say. And in cases where the landowner wants to change the zoning to a less-intense use, the process should be easier, Development Services Director Gary Maidhof said.
He pointed to the 5,242 acres of land the state bought several years ago from Sugarmill Woods. The land is part of the Annutteliga Hammock, but rezoning the lots from residential use to a conservation area required the same lengthy circuit of public hearings as those for any other rezoning request, Maidhof said.
"Shouldn't we be able to put that through a more simplistic approach, rather than go through the whole rigmarole?" he asked.
The governor's commission report proposes eliminating the Department of Community Affairs' review of rezoning requests, except when the project might affect natural resources, transportation facilities or natural disaster preparedness on a statewide level.
That would streamline the process, but some local officials are concerned that without any state oversight for most proposals, developers could once again use political pressure to get local boards to approve faulty projects. No state agency would be there as the backup voice of reason, Bartell said.
"Politically, we would go back in time 15, 18 years," Bartell said.
But Fowler and Commissioner Roger Batchelor say Citrus County must make up its mind: Either it wants to make development decisions locally, or it wants the state to continue guiding counties as they grow.
"We complain about the oversight of the state and not being able to be the masters of our fate and unfunded mandates and all of this," Fowler said. "We just can't have it both ways."
Individually, the county commissioners disagree on some points on how growth management should be revamped, but they agreed Tuesday that the governor's commission report is not the way to go. They passed a resolution opposing the major points of the report, and as the legislative session approaches, they will air their concerns with lawmakers.
Their message on the state's growth-management process: "Massage it, streamline it, correct the problems where it is antiquated, but don't throw it out," Bartell said.
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