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Lawmakers split on growth bill

The version that passed the House makes changes to Florida's planning laws.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The battle over the future of Florida's development laws is turning out to be a political cliffhanger.

On Monday, the House of Representatives passed a growth management bill that environmentalists complain is packed with loopholes for developers.

The vote sets up a standoff between the two branches of the Legislature, with some observers predicting that lawmakers could go home on Friday without passing a growth management bill at all.

That's a far cry from the beginning of the legislative session, when Rep. George Albright, an Ocala Republican, proposed a massive overhaul of the 1985 Growth Management Act that would have taken the state out of its role as top development cop, leaving development decisions to 67 local appointed boards.

The bill that passed Monday leaves the state's enforcement role intact. But it makes other changes to Florida's planning laws, including exempting marinas and airports from some state planning reviews, creating incentives to allow "satellite villages" on agricultural lands, and changing the way that citizens can challenge developers.

Developers say Florida's growth management law is bulky and doesn't accomplish much. Environmentalists and planners say it hasn't been enforced well, with Florida communities passing exemption after exemption to appease developers.

Both the Senate and House want to appoint a study commission to review the 1985 law, but the House wants to make some immediate changes this year to satisfy development and business lobbyists who say Florida needs to relax its development rules.

During debate last week, House leaders prominently posted a list of industries that support the bill on an easel in the front of the House floor. On the list were more than 50 groups, including the Florida Homebuilders Association, U.S. Sugar Corp., the Florida Pulp & Paper Association and the Florida Phosphate Council. Not a single environmental group supports the House bill.

"It's a special-interest package," said Marcia Elder, lobbyist for the American Planning Association.

"They are doing nothing to improve the quality of life for Floridians," said Bill Jones, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Women Voters. "How is this going to help you with traffic congestion? With urban sprawl? It's making it easier for the developer to get his permit, but it's making it harder for the citizen to get access to the process."

But the growth management bill has been changed enough to earn the support of government groups such as the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities and Gov. Jeb Bush's Department of Community Affairs. DCA has two concerns with the bill, however: its less rigorous review of marinas and changes affecting a citizen's right to challenge developments.

Jones and Elder are relying on Republican moderates in the Senate -- specifically Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor and Tom Lee of Brandon -- to push for a simple study commission bill that doesn't make big changes in the frenetic final days of the session.

"What we're doing is moving too fast on something that's far too big," said Rep. Larcenia Bullard, a Miami Democrat. "I'm concerned that if we move too fast, we'll have more pavement than we do greenery."

Lee said the Senate "will never pass the House bill" as it is now written.

Senate President Toni Jennings would "rather have no bill than a bad bill," said her spokeswoman, Edie Ousley.

Nearly everyone involved in the public debate is connected to the development industry: Jennings runs a construction company, Lee is a developer, Albright is a lawyer who has represented developers, and Bush was a Miami developer.

So far, Bush hasn't said much about the growth management debate. His spokesman, Justin Sayfie, said the governor supports the study commission idea, and would accept some "modest" changes to growth management laws this year.

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