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Year's push to curb growth falls short

Lawmakers instead open loopholes for airports, tank farms and the St. Joe Co.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001

Lawmakers instead open loopholes for airports, tank farms and the St. Joe Co.

TALLAHASSEE -- This was the year that many people -- including Gov. Jeb Bush -- hoped Florida would improve the growth management laws that are supposed to stop urban sprawl.

Instead, the only significant growth management measures that passed out of the 2001 legislative session were a few special-interest exemptions that benefit big developers and a new program where taxpayers will end up paying rural landowners not to develop their property.

The much-talked about growth management bill, which would have made communities deny new development when schools are too crowded, died in the session's last hours. Bush lobbied hard for the bill but was unable to get the Republican-controlled House to pass it.

Behind the scenes, special interests were able to carve out a few loopholes from growth management laws: airports will no longer be considered as "developments of regional impact," or DRIs, and will receive less state review. Petroleum "tank farms," which have numerous huge tanks of gasoline and oil, also will be exempt from DRI review. Some lawmakers argued that those type of developments already get enough review because of other laws. But critics say the loopholes will needlessly reduce state review over projects that affect a whole region -- not just one particular county.

Environmentalists were furious that the St. Joe Co., the state's largest private landowner, got a loophole that will allow large housing developments in some rural areas to escape DRI review. The loophole will allow St. Joe and other developers to save millions when they develop parts of the Florida Panhandle, including some valuable stretches of coast. The measure was pushed as a way to boost the economies of slow-growth counties.

"After a year's worth of work on growth management, nothing passed that was an improvement for growth management," complained Marcia Elder, lobbyist for the Florida chapter of the American Planning Association.

Bush set the stage for growth management changes last year, when he convened a special task force to review the state's laws on urban sprawl. But most of the task force's recommendations were thrown by the wayside.

When it looked as if the Legislature wouldn't pass a growth-management bill at all this year, Bush vowed to keep up his efforts to revamp growth laws.

"I'm not going to drop this," he said.

Growth management wasn't the only environmental battle in the 2001 Legislature. Environmentalists were able to kill a controversial plan to pump tainted water into the state's underground aquifer, but they failed to keep lawmakers from taking $75-million from the state's land-buying fund and using it for other things.

One of the most significant -- and little noticed -- measures could radically change the way Florida deals with rural land.

It sets up a new program where rural landowners could be paid for every acre they keep in ranchland or timber operations. Under the program, the state would buy "conservation easements" from rural landowners. The landowners would agree not to develop, and the agreement would stay in place, even if the land were sold to someone else.

"When you buy a conservation easement, you're keeping it from being developed and it doesn't have to be managed by the government," said Eric Draper, a lobbyist for Audubon.

Environmentalists and agricultural interests -- who are usually on the opposite sides -- joined together to pass the measure.

Another bill sets up a program where rural landowners could transfer their development rights. It would start as a pilot project in five areas around the state. County governments would decide which land should have dense development and which land should stay agricultural. Then, rural landowners could be paid to transfer their development rights from the agricultural areas to the places earmarked for more development.

One key component went missing, however: Proponents had sought $100 million in tax dollars to fund the program, but ended up without money. They vow to set up the program this year, and come back to the 2002 Legislature to obtain the money to pay for it.

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