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    Landowner seeks to alter development rules

    If the rules are changed, the St. Joe Co. could build large housing developments without rigorous impact reviews.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's largest private landowner, the St. Joe Co., is trying to change the law so it can build large housing developments without having to go through rigorous state and regional review.

    The change could have big ramifications in parts of the Florida Panhandle, where St. Joe owns vast tracts of forest land it now wants to develop.

    In Franklin and Gulf counties, which have miles of undeveloped Panhandle coastline, the company would be able to build as many as 750 homes without going through a state review for Developments of Regional Impact. As it stands now, St. Joe would have to get a DRI review if it built 250 homes. DRI review is supposed to give all local governments in a region a say-so over big developments.

    All housing projects of a certain size -- it differs county by county -- must go through DRI review. St. Joe's proposed amendment would let the company increase the number of houses it can build without going through a DRI review by a full 200 percent.

    St. Joe owns about 70,000 acres in Franklin County and about 100,000 acres in Gulf County, said Franklin County planner Alan Pierce.

    "We only issue about 100 new home permits a year, so it could be a big change," said Pierce. "They would have the ability to create 749 lots in these rural areas without all the review that's normally associated with a large project like that."

    The change is being pushed in the name of rural economic development. The change would only apply in 14 rural counties that are specially designated by Florida's governor as a "rural area of critical economic concern."

    Some of the counties are in the south-central region of the state, around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. The others are in North Florida: Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty, Washington and Gulf counties.

    In Gadsden County, for example, the company normally would have to go through a DRI review if it built a 500-home development. Under the change, it could build 1,500 homes without a DRI review.

    The DRI exemption would only last a few more years -- until 2004 in northwest Florida and until 2006 in south-central Florida counties like Glades and Okeechobee.

    "I think not having a DRI review substantially reduces the amount of time it takes to complete a project," said St. Joe lobbyist Dan Stengle. "This is not unusual to try to infuse development dollars in areas that have suffered severe economic hardships."

    The amendment was added to an economic development measure that's moving through the Legislature, and it may be tacked onto a bill to rewrite portions of Florida's Growth Management Act.

    Marcia Elder, a lobbyist for the American Planning Association, called the change a "special interest" amendment explicitly crafted to benefit St. Joe.

    But Chris Doolin, a lobbyist for the Small Counties Coalition, said the change will help slow-growth counties get a bigger tax base and more jobs.

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