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Sleepy planning council snaps up attention

As real estate agents join the regional board, a state commission recommends giving it authority over developments.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001

The name of one new member of the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council should be familiar to just about anyone who has seen property for sale in Hernando County.

Gary Schraut of Brooksville owns a Coldwell Banker franchise in Brooksville and is one of the most visible real estate brokers in the county.

Gov. Jeb Bush's other recent appointee to the council from Hernando is Jennifer Card, a saleswoman with ERA Pearson Realty in Spring Hill. Of the seven other new members to be sworn in at a council meeting on Thursday, one is a developer, another a Realtor and a third a land use lawyer.

This trend is not especially new. Environmentalists have long complained that regional planning councils -- which also include representatives from the local governments they serve -- have been stocked with development advocates.

Many also said it didn't matter much. The councils have fewer oversight responsibilities than they did when they were created in the early 1970s. Their role is mostly advisory, and five years ago, Hernando County commissioners threated to secede from the council, partly because they considered it powerless.

"When I was on the planning council, they were snooze board," said state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who served on the council when she was a member of the Hernando County Commission.

Under a proposal by the state's Growth Management Study Commission, however, the importance of the councils and who is sitting on them may change drastically.

Specifically, the commission has recommended that planning councils be given two powers now held by the state Department of Community Affairs: overseeing developments large enough to affect more than one local government and resolving disputes about comprehensive plan amendments.

That means, environmentalists say, that the planning councils would be involved in the biggest or most controversial projects.

"This is a huge, huge mistake, giving state power to regional boards," said Denise Layne of Tampa, one of two Sierra Club members assigned to monitor state growth management proposals.

Shift of oversight

The Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council, which includes Hernando, Citrus, Marion, Sumter and Levy counties, is one of 11 in the state. The groups operate with state money and dues collected from their member governments, which are required by state law to belong.

Michael Moehlman, who was recently hired as the Withlacoochee council's executive director, was in Tallahassee last week and did not return telephone calls from the Times to his hotel there or to the planning council office in Ocala.

The makeup of the councils' boards is one of the worries of people who do not think they can adequately monitor growth.

Their members include, Layne said, elected officials who approved the large or controversial projects in the first place, other elected officials who generally do not want to interfere with their colleagues' decisions, and citizen members who often stand to profit from lax growth management.

"There could be some validity to regional planning councils doing that work if they were completely overhauled and had balanced representation," said Richard Grosso of the Environmental and Land Use Law Center in Broward County.

"But if regional planning councils do what they have basically always done, which is rubber-stamp the work of the (local governments), then . . . having the regional planning councils enforce growth management would basically mean no enforcement."

Regional planning councils currently make suggestions when a government wants to change its comprehensive plan, the blueprint for future growth, but have no regulatory authority. They answer questions from businesses and individuals interested in moving to the area, and their planning staff helps local governments, especially smaller ones, with planning work, including the writing of comprehensive plans.

The Growth Management Study Commission, which was formed a year ago after an unsuccessful effort in the Legislature to eliminate most state oversight of local growth issues, would scrap the current system of having the state Department of Community Affairs oversee large developments, called "developments of regional impact."

Instead, planning councils across the state would work out agreements with local governments on these projects, commonly known as DRIs. The agreements would include deciding which projects are big enough to qualify as having regional impact, how the public would be involved in the discussions and how other local governments would be allowed to voice opinions about projects.

The commission's other primary recommendation regarding regional planning councils would appoint them "mediators to resolve disputes over local comprehensive plans, developments with extra-regional impacts and land use decisions. This includes being the first stop for all challenges to local plan amendments by citizens, other local jurisdictions, landowners and developers."

The commission also foresees increasing the planning councils' budgets so they can handle their additional responsibilities.

Bush's selection of council members

If environmentalists are concerned that these recommendations will become law this year, they should not be, said Brown-Waite. Bush, who has backed the effort to rewrite the state's growth rules, has specifically pushed only two of the commission's recommendations.

One is a "full cost accounting" formula that would attempt to determine precisely how much a new development would cost a community. The other would add schools to the list of public services that must be accounted for with any new development.

And these, generally, have the broadest support among a generally divided commission, said Charles Lee, a Florida Audubon Society lobbyist and the only environmentalist appointed to the commission.

"I think the governor is focusing on the recommendations that . . . have the most consensus," Lee said. "On the issue of the (developments of regional impact) and regional planning councils, I think he's taking a very cautious approach."

And generally, said Brown-Waite, unlike last year, she does not see any frantic effort to change the state's growth management laws.

"I don't see any great rush," she said.

Both she and Elizabeth Hirst, a spokeswoman in the governor's office, also said there is no validity to the suggestion of some environmentalists that Bush is stocking the regional councils with developers in anticipation of giving them more power.

"The governor is briefed on all applicants. He just looks for the best people with the best possible experience. The governor looks for a good blend of people to fulfill these duties," Hirst said.

Brown-Waite said she submitted both names to Bush's office, but originally for other jobs -- Card for the Brooksville Housing Authority and Schraut for one of the Southwest Florida Water Management District's basin boards.

"They were trying to get other positions. I hate to use the term, but they were basically leftovers," she said.

Schraut said that is fine with him. He said he did not angle for the planning council to further his own business or make for a more development-friendly atmosphere in Hernando County.

He said he just wanted to continue his pattern of serving on public boards.

"I've always explained to (state Rep.) David Russell and Ginny Brown-Waite, if there was anywhere I could serve, it would be a pleasure and an honor to do so."

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