Land use amendment could freeze developments

Jan.January 06, 2010 11:14 AM

State planning officials are struggling to keep pace with a flood of development proposals being filed in advance of possible transformative changes to Florida land use law.

If approved by voters in November, Florida’s amendment 4 to the state constitution would require all changes in government comprehensive plans to be approved by voters in a local referendum. That would slow the process and could hamper the launch of new projects, opponents claim. The measure is figured to be one of this year’s most combative and costly political issues.

Despite a lousy economy, unemployment at a 34-year high, and more than 300,000 unsold homes on the market in Florida, developers are rushing to get state approval for scores of projects that don’t meet local comp-plan standards, adopted over the years by cities and counties. Comp-plans help guide a community’s growth by creating zoning and land use requirements, taking into account transportation, schools and other development needs.

Fearing the strict changes Amendment 4 augurs, developers have flooded the state’s main planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs, with a staggering 937 packets of proposed comprehensive plan changes last year — well above the 880 packets of proposed changes put forward in 2007, the most recent year for which data was also available.

“The irony is that these landowners — who so fear having comp-plan changes go before voters that they’re hurrying-up their development plans — really just adds fuel to the fire of those who say the voters need to have a say in these approvals,” said DCA Secretary Tom Pelham.

The Florida Hometown Democracy movement worked for years to gather signatures and fend off opposition from the business and development community in getting Amendment 4 on next November’s ballot. Proponents say the slowdown would be a victory for local government and backers of slower, more deliberate growth.

Building-trade organizations, Florida Realtors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and local chambers have lent their money and clout to Floridians for Smarter Growth, a political action committee that vilifies Amendment 4 as the source of a potential economic Ice Age that would halt development.

Amendment 4 foes call the Hometown Democracy leaders “special interest” lawyers, and “hardcore extremists,” citing as examples Amendment 4 supporter Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner and a South Florida woman, Joyce Tarnow, who has advocated for population control.

The hand-wringing is sparking plenty of paperwork along with harsh words.

Many of the developments that want to sidestep comp-plan standards may never be built. At the very least, ground will be broken only when the economy turns around, Pelham acknowledged.

Among them is the Farmton development, which straddles Brevard and Volusia counties. Developer Miami Corp. wants to turn the 60,000-acre site into a spot for 30,000 new homes and commercial development.

“If they can get it in the comp-plan now, they don’t have to worry about going before voters,” said Pelham, who added that his agency is staying out of the Amendment 4 fight.

Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer and president of Hometown Democracy, said the flood of proposed amendments shows local and state officials are incapable of breaking their reliance on growth — even when the state’s economy is in a shambles from the collapse of the development boom.

“Florida is a one-trick pony,” Blackner said. “These groups opposing Amendment 4 would bring back the housing bubble in a heartbeat, no matter what damage it has done to this state.”

She added: “They’re like drunk drivers who just keep wanting to go behind the wheel. They’ll drive us off the cliff if we don’t take away the keys.”

Other opponents of Amendment 4 include economic development councils and the Florida Association of School Boards. They say Florida must diversify its economy and break its reliance on development. Historically, fixes to Florida’s troubled economy find their roots in more construction.

The amendment is seen as a start to providing a diversification-based fix for the state’s troubled economy. Lawmakers last spring approved Senate Bill 360, a measure that relaxes requirements that transportation improvements be done before development proceeds. This provides more legislative support for a slower, more deliberate development process that forces governments to take a hand in new developments. The bill is now the object of a lawsuit brought by 20 local governments that claim it is unconstitutional.

Local governments, though, fear passage of Amendment 4, claiming it could lead to chaos by forcing votes on even routine comp-plan changes.

“We believe it’s a no-growth amendment,” said Edie Ousley, a spokesperson for the Florida Homebuilders Association. He said home building has dried up in Florida, but that’s the result of a building boom collapse. Proponents of more deliberate growth claim it will make new projects more secure and better supported by local governments. Over the past year, the builder’s association’s membership fell by half to 10,000 members in the past year as the economy tanked.

“To force Floridians to the voting booth to cast a vote on every comp-plan amendment goes against the very reason we elect local representatives to make decisions that are in the best [interest] of residents,” she added.

Through mid-December, the Department of Community Affairs has approved 631 amendment packets — compared with 410 in 2007, records show.

“You often hear from developers that we’re a barrier to growth,” Pelham said. “But clearly, we’re not standing in the doorway saying ‘no’ to everything. We approve a substantial number of amendments.”

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