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    Growing out of control

    The political debate in Florida over growth management is, much like land development itself, growing out of control. The state needs to improve the way it regulates and supports growth, but too many lawmakers are seeking only to undermine growth laws.

    By JON EAST

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


    In Pinellas, a peninsular county blessed by the gulf's gentle breezes, the nagging reminders of development say something to Florida. The daily life, sweet as it is, carries the pains of awkward growth.

    Look around: 280 square miles, 908,112 people. The major north-south road, U.S. 19, is so overwhelmed that the county built a bridge across a strip of Tampa Bay to relieve the burden; yet U.S. 19 remains in places a six-lane parking lot during rush hour. The county's newest high school, in Palm Harbor, has 28 portable classrooms to handle the student overflow. The landfills grew so full the county was forced to build a massive garbage incinerator in 1983 and began expansion the day it opened. Sewage treatment plants work to keep pace with flushing toilets, but have frequently pumped their effluent into Tampa Bay or deep into the ground. To protect houses and hotels from falling into the sea, dredges periodically scoop sand from the Gulf of Mexico and refortify the barrier islands. The underground water supply in most of the county was overpumped seven decades ago, and now, in the midst of a two-year drought, water is so scarce that regional suppliers want to build desalination plants to take the salt out of seawater and to construct towering earthen walls to create a reservoir to catch rainwater.

    Gloria Palmer, a Largo resident, offers a typical assessment:

    "To add insult to injury . . . we have developers clamoring to build more high-rise condos, more housing subdivisions, more malls and more hotels. All of these projects use water that we don't have. The people we elected to our city and county boards seem to be oblivious to our critical water situation, because they continue to permit the building."

    This is the face of the growth debate throughout much of Florida, but not necessarily in the Capitol. Sixteen years after the landmark Growth Management Act was adopted, a new governor and new legislative leaders are poised to overhaul growth laws in the 2001 session, and their attitude and their target differ from Gloria Palmer's.

    Last year, Rep. George Albright, R-Ocala, serving in his last session before term limits removed him office, pushed a bill that would have undermined growth laws, and he was not the least bit shy about his intent: "We're running up the cost of development to prop up a cottage industry of environmentalists." This year, as a gubernatorially appointed Growth Management Study Commission completed its much-anticipated work, vice chairman Paul Bradshaw, who is married to Gov. Jeb Bush's former chief of staff, rifled off an e-mail to fellow commission member and Florida Aubudon Society lobbyist Charles Lee: "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."

    Welcome to the politics of growth management. Though most reasonable people would agree that growth laws are not working as they were originally intended, reasonable debate is increasingly hard to find in the Legislature. There is a palpable sense of vengeance in the halls of the Capitol, a sense that the state, far from being too timid with its growth regulation, has in fact gone too far. Those who are the most supportive of or the most experienced in growth law are often pushed away from the table to make room for those with the biggest grudge, and the result is random, self-interested and often contradictory reform. And now lawmakers are set to convene with their own mandate to change the law but with no common agreement on how to do so.

    "It's remarkably unsettled at this point, given that we've had a commission working on it," says David Powell, a Tallahassee attorney who represents developers and directed the last comprehensive review of growth laws. "There is no agreed-upon consensus package that has come out of this commission's work, and that is what legislatures typically look for."

    "Growth management is very complicated and very involved, and we've all been struck with how the commission's plan is not well thought through," says Charles Pattison, executive director of the watchdog1,000 Friends of Florida. "Even some of the good ideas in it lack the proper mechanisms to make them work. They said they wanted fresh thinking, but what they overlooked was the people with the most knowledge."

    The final report from the Growth Study Commission asks the state to cede more development control to local governments and to establish that the "highest priority is to achieve a diverse, healthy, vibrant and sustainable economy," and almost no one is taking it seriously. Senate President John McKay has hired his own counsel, a development attorney, to advise the Senate on how to proceed. An informal group of lobbyists representing broad interests -- from homebuilders to city and county governments to environmentalists -- has been meeting on its own to try to find areas of consensus. The governor's office is scrambling to write a bill that at least touches on Bush's theme of "true cost accounting" for growth.

    Somewhere in this mix, the frustrations of people such as Gloria Palmer have gotten lost.

    The state Department of Community Affairs, which administers growth laws, did its own survey last year and found many people like Palmer. In particular, a staggering 90 percent of those responding to the survey said they wanted to keep and expand the law's core "concurrency" provision -- the requirement that new development be approved only if adequate roads and sewers and public facilities are built at the same time. Yet the Growth Study Commission recommended that concurrency be eventually abolished, replaced with a cost accounting method that is at best ambiguous.

    The commission was created as part of a legislative compromise last year, a compromise intended to head off major threats to growth law and satisfy the worst critics of growth management. The governor, a developer who once called for abolishing DCA, appointed all 23 members. Five were builders, six were local government officials who wanted less oversight, others were large rural landowners. Only one environmental representative was appointed. More glaringly, he appointed none of the state's most knowledgeable observers -- not former DCA secretary John DeGrove, who helped write the law, not former DCA secretary Tom Pelham, who first implemented the comprehensive plans, not Nathaniel Pryor Reed, former assistant U.S. Interior secretary and founder of the state's growth watchdog group.

    The commissioners were then given a staff director with no previous growth law experience and seven months to recommend changes to one of the state's most complex bodies of law. The results were predictable.

    "They never really established an outcome, an idea of what they want as an end result of growth laws," says Marcia Elder, executive director of the American Planning Association's Florida chapter. "They never did a comprehensive review of how the law has worked, never looked at the act itself, didn't look at the policies. We all acknowledge they worked extremely hard, but the charge was really huge in relation to the size and complexity of the issue."

    The result was a series of 89 scattered recommendations aimed primarily at limiting state oversight.

    Under current law, every city and county is required to maintain a growth blueprint, and that plan is supposed to match development with all the services, including such things as roads, water and sewer lines, to accommodate it. The state has to approve those plans, and any new development order or any attempt to increase development density is measured against that plan.

    The Study Commission and Gov. Bush have recommended a new system of checks and balances. Chief among them are these:

    A "full cost accounting" formula to determine precisely how much a new development would cost a community. The state would devise a "balanced growth-balance sheet model" to estimate costs of development and those costs would be publicized as a way to encourage city councils and county commissions to deal honestly with growth. But even Bush, who says he has "spent hours on this trying to figure out how to do this the right way," acknowledges his concept is untested and needs substantially more detail. How can any formula account for all effects from a development -- new roads necessary, new school classrooms, more water needed, more smog added, loss of natural habitat? Would local governments, absent state oversight, make sure that services were provided along with the development?

    Limiting state oversight. DCA would become the Department of Community "Assistance" and serve as a "partner" to local governments, and the state would be involved in overseeing only matters of "compelling statewide interest." Even development lobbyists wonder whether this will truly streamline growth regulation. The current recommendation calls for only natural resources, transportation and natural disasters to be considered, which leaves out such services as schools, which the governor considers a top public priority. How would the state enforce such compelling interests? Would the Department of Transportation be forced to sue a local government to stop development on overburdened state roads?

    Making schools a part of growth decisions. Schools were never included on the list of public facilities and services that are necessary to accommodate growth, leading to extreme overcrowding in some communities. Bush is on the right track in calling for schools to be part of the growth equation, but neither he nor the commission has said exactly how. The commission writes that "school concurrency is so difficult to implement that no local government has yet successfully done so." The obvious solution, which is to mandate that local governments include school construction in their growth plans, also conflicts with Bush's stated objective of giving those local governments more freedom.

    Abolishing large-scale development rules. The state has a more elaborate permitting process for large developments, called the Development of Regional Impact, and developers have never liked it. The commission recommends the DRI be abolished in favor of a series of cooperative agreements, put in place by regional planning councils, between cities in each region. But, again, no one is sure whether such agreements would be more effective or whether they would be less burdensome to developers.

    The Growth Study Commission asked for further study on many issues -- recommending, for example, the appointment of another commission to determine how to come up with accountability and measurements for full cost accounting. And Gov. Bush, to his credit, is now calling for a multi-year review of growth laws. But the problem with their reform efforts is not merely that they lack definition. The problem is that they simply miss the mark. In focusing so much attention on streamlining and returning control to local governments, the commission missed the two most basic lessons of a quarter-century of growth management.

    The first lesson is that cities and counties continue on a daily basis to make bad development decisions, which is why many communities, despite all the laws, are still being strangled by growth. The state passed its first growth planning law in 1975, the Local Government Comprehensive Planning Act, and learned that without state oversight little would be accomplished. That's why the state role was added 10 years later. Peter Wallace, a former House speaker and an author of the 1985 law, learned the lesson well.

    "I continue to be of the opinion that it was local control that set Florida on the wrong path in a way that has been almost impossible to undo," says Wallace. "I can't fathom why we would go back to that."

    The second lesson is that Florida never has accepted its obligation to pay for growth. If growth laws work as they were intended, development is slowed or stopped only by the inability of governments to pay for the services to keep pace.

    In 1987, two years after the law was originally adopted, a commission headed by then Southeast Banking Corp. chairman Charles Zwick issued an urgent plea that went mostly unheeded: "We all say we want Florida to grow -- in importance and in quality of life. But are we willing to face the realities of Florida's future? Are we willing to pay for the roads and the bridges, the schools and the teachers, the jails and the prisons, the sewers and the waterlines, and all the host of human services that we need to compete successfully and thus fulfill our dreams for this state?"

    In 2001, Florida is still growing at a rate of 834 people a day, and a Legislature with 64 new members and some $2.7-million in construction industry campaign contributions will convene with growth management on its agenda. Gov. Bush calls it one of his two top priorities, and House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President McKay have been persistent critics of the growth laws. That the study commission's work was so seriously flawed cannot possibly help.

    Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who fought attempts last year to gut growth laws, has a commendable suggestion. He says lawmakers should avoid the polemics and get back to basics.

    "I really encouraged the commission to focus on what I think is the fundamental defect in growth management in Florida," says Lee. "There is this extraordinary disconnect that exists between land-use decisions and our ability to fund the infrastructure that will sustain the same quality of life. I've always surmised in my discussions with people that it's not growth per se they are concerned about. The fundamental concern is that the more we grow the further we seem to get behind in terms of our essential infrastructure."

    Lee, a homebuilder, is right. Developers and preservationists alike ought to be able to agree that current growth laws are agonizingly bureaucratic and often miss the intended mark. Yet the Growth Study Commission's work illustrates why so little trust exists upon which to build a consensus for change. The commission set out to streamline the rules but ignored why they existed in the first place. People like Gloria Palmer are stuck in traffic because cities and counties have refused to heed the warnings of growth management. Any true reform will give a green light to motorists, and not just to developers.

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