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A Times Editorial

A conspicuous retreat

The state's decision to cut back on growth management efforts is worrisome, especially in light of Gov. Jeb Bush's pro-development record.

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2001

The state's decision to cut back on growth management efforts is worrisome, especially in light of Gov. Jeb Bush's pro-development record.

Though the attempts to weaken state growth management law were resisted in the Legislature earlier this year, Gov. Jeb Bush has not let that stand in his way. His Department of Community Affairs, which is Florida's growth cop, has simply decided not to walk the beat so much.

DCA has quietly established an administrative goal to do less -- to cut in half, by Jan. 1, the number of times it gets involved in policing local development disputes. DCA Secretary Steve Seibert says that his goal is to shift the emphasis from small-change development to more significant matters. But get this: He wants specifically to spend less time analyzing development in communities and ecosystems that are designated by law as "Areas of Critical State Concern."

DCA is also boasting that it already has cut state growth reviews by 82 percent in the Florida Keys, a unique string of islands that has been so overburdened by development that lawmakers 17 years ago adopted the "Florida Keys Area Protection Act." Is new construction in the Keys not so important anymore?

Seibert is right that many of the planning reviews his department performs can be eliminated without harm to the larger goals of growth management. In some cases, DCA was being forced to oversee home dock permits and new construction in downtown areas where development is desired. But he is less convincing when he says the manpower can be better spent in assisting small cities and counties that want to make better development plans.

The reason the law and the state oversight exist is not that cities and counties have been eager for state assistance. The 1985 Growth Management Act was passed because those governments, in particular the rural ones, thumbed their noses at planning and at oversight. A former DCA secretary was once greeted at a Santa Rosa County public meeting with a pot of tar and feathers.

The DCA's role has necessarily changed since those early days, but its obligation has not. Bad development practices still haunt Florida's future, as builders are allowed to build strip malls on overcrowded highways or housing developments in suburbs with no schools or adequate roads. Those mistakes are often made in small increments, in precisely the kinds of developments that DCA is now deciding not to review.

The cutback might be easier to stomach if it were accompanied by some assertive moves to protect Florida from crushing development. But Bush's record in this regard has been remarkably consistent. As a private developer, he was among those who fought growth management, and he argued that DCA should be streamlined or eliminated.

Last year, he appointed a development-heavy commission that recommended the core requirement under the law -- that new buildings can't go up unless new roads and services are built to handle them -- be abolished. And he has summarily dismissed every attempt to grant cities and counties the right to raise more local taxes to be able to build necessary roads and sewers. They can be trusted to plan, apparently, but not to spend.

So what is left at DCA is a conspicuous retreat with no corresponding advance in growth protection. Observes Richard Grosso, general counsel of the Environmental and Land Use Law Center and a former DCA attorney:

"I see them trying to rewrite the Growth Management Act without actually doing so. . . . The approach at DCA over the past year and a half has been like this: They say, 'Oh, it's a large county. They have a lot of developable land left, so we don't have to scrutinize it closely. Or, it's Dade County, which is so fast-growing that, what's another development?' "

Not coincidentally, this is precisely the kind of DCA that Bush promised the contractors and developers who poured money into his campaign for governor. With his re-election already begun, he can surely count on more.

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