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Committee endorses growth act revisions

House members pass proposed changes to the way Florida regulates development.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- For months, state leaders have been urging the Legislature to go slow on a Republican plan to revamp Florida's Growth Management Act.

But Wednesday, lawmakers in a House committee bit into the task with relish, passing a measure that proposes huge changes to the way Florida regulates development.

One change would exempt malls, offices, stadiums, hotels, motels and industrial parks from a state rule that makes developers widen roads or otherwise take care of the traffic impacts coming from their developments.

Another would prevent any government in the state from "down-zoning" rural land to cut the number of homes built there. The zoning moratorium would last a year.

Supporters said the changes are needed to cut bureaucracy and speed up development approvals.

Environmentalists and planners have warned against a frenzied approach to dismantling growth management laws, and by the end of Wednesday's meeting, they were reeling.

The bill that passed is a more watered-down version than was proposed by Rep. George Albright, R-Ocala. Albright's first bill took the state out of regulating growth almost completely, leaving development decisions to local appointed boards.

During the meeting, Albright compared his opponents to "the Red Chinese -- not willing to compromise."

Environmentalists said the new bill passed Wednesday has many changes that will hurt Florida's efforts to curb urban sprawl.

The measure changes the way residents can challenge developers. It exempts marinas, airports and petroleum storage facilities from the rigorous "Development of Regional Impact" reviews. And it says schools can be built on land zoned for agriculture, which could cause urban sprawl.

Bill Sublette, R-Orlando, tried to assure audience members the bill was "simply a study commission" and "not on a fast track."

Lawmakers then turned to a packet of amendments -- many of them crafted by development lobbyists -- and passed them, rapid-fire, without explaining them. The amendments were not available before the House Community Affairs Committee meeting, so audience members had no chance to testify about the changes.

Later, observers learned the committee had made bigger changes than they thought. The bill isn't assigned to any other committee, and could head straight to the House floor without any more public testimony.

"I think, clearly, we're being cut out of the process," charged Marcia Elder, a lobbyist for the American Planning Association.

Only one lawmaker -- Democrat Marjorie Turnbull of Tallahassee -- voted against the measure. She said the bill was "leaning too far back towards development interests."

Growth management advocates want the Legislature to appoint a study commission so the law can be revamped in a deliberative fashion. Gov. Jeb Bush and his top planning official, Department of Community Affairs Secretary Steve Seibert, also support the study commission idea.

In the Senate, Brandon Republican Tom Lee is vowing to fight wholesale changes to the Growth Management Act this year. Lee, a developer, is proposing a 25-member growth management commission that would make recommendations to the 2001 Legislature.

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