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Florida Staters, Gators & Smart Growth Debaters

Readers should pay close attention to a new initiative in the State of Florida that, if successful, could affect planning and development everywhere. If you're a municipal overseer or a private-sector...


Readers should pay close attention to a new initiative in the State of Florida that, if successful, could affect planning and development everywhere. If you’re a municipal overseer or a private-sector proponent of projects ranging from subdivisions and shopping malls to sewage treatment plants and landfills, you need to know about this.

If you’re skeptical, remember that the “new urbanism” concept that now informs most municipal planning started in Seaside, Florida.

The initiative, called Florida Hometown Democracy (www.floridahometowndemocracy.com), is led by Florida lawyers Lesley Blackner and Ross Burnaman. A few years ago the duo became fed up with the backroom dealing and political clout of developers whose growth-at-all-costs philosophy was subverting — in their estimation — the planning and approvals process and transforming their state from a tropical paradise into an endless succession of low-density subdivisions and parking-lot-moated shopping malls. (As someone who has vacationed every year for more than a decade in central Florida, I’ve seen the “malling” of Florida with my own eyes.)

Their Hometown Democracy group is attempting to put a state constitutional amendment on the 2008 ballot through the petition process. The proposed amendment would require voter approval of changes in local “comprehensive plans.” The goal? To empower local residents in cleaning up what the group’s founders calls “the corrupt local politics of growth.”

To succeed, the organization will need 611,009 signatures (from a certain percentage of 13 Congressional districts) by February; it now has more than half the signatures needed. The amendment is a fully self-executing law; it takes effect the day it’s enacted by Florida voters.

Not surprisingly, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the National Homebuilders Association decided to fight the proposal and created an organization of their own called Floridians for Smarter Growth (www.FLSmarterGrowth.org). This group is circulating its own petition that would put planning changes on the ballot only if 10 percent of voters sign a petition at county supervisor of elections offices (tougher to achieve than Hometown Democracy’s ballot scheme.)

Smarter Growth claims that Hometown Democracy’s amendment would stop growth in the state. Its website outlines a nightmare scenario in which residents might be asked to vote every year on hundreds of changes to each town’s comprehensive plan.

Observers say that Smarter Growth’s backers succeeded in persuading the legislature to pass new laws that make it more difficult to adopt citizens’ initiatives. They moved up the signature deadline by six months and let businesses ban petition gatherers from their property.

Business also obtained regulatory instruments that allow voters to revoke their signatures. An industry-backed group called Save Our Constitution (www.takebackmysignature.com) helps people submit a revocation form to the supervisor of elections asking for their signature to be removed (within 150 days of signing).

Lesley Blackner argues her proposal won’t stop already-approved growth that, according to a 1999 study, will permit residential development for more than 100 million people. (Florida currently has 20 million residents.)

She says Smarter Growth and Save Our Constitution are “funded by Big Sugar and other major land developers” who use underhanded tactics such as siphoning off petition distributors from Home Democracy by paying them $3 per signature (three times what her group could afford). She says the industry lobby’s petition is designed to look like her own and confuse people.

The rhetoric and subterfuge has often been as high as the campaign stakes. In one bizarre example, Save Our Constitution’s website attempts to cloud voters’ concept of who represents big business by referring to Hometown Democracy’s supporters as “electors” (i.e., voters) that represent “special interests” whose “slick lawyers will rig the system to put our future in the hands of their cronies.”

Um, isn’t this what the developers are accused of doing?

A bipartisan growth management group has sprung up called 1000 Friends of Florida (www.1000friendsofflorida.org) whose members include both development and environmental backgrounds. It’s thankful that Hometown Democracy has fostered a debate over the failing system, but suggests that a scalpel is needed, not a meat cleaver. It argues the proposed amendment could turn the planning process into a series of high-priced media campaigns that favor wealthy developers, result in piecemeal rather than comprehensive planning and (ironically) promote sprawl in new areas as voters block growth in existing communities (i.e., the Not in My Backyard [NIMBY] syndrome).

The proposal also could result in backlash legislation to weaken planning requirements and cause legal gridlock through court challenges, 1000 Friends says.

Emotionally I find myself siding with Florida Hometown Democracy; I love that someone is finally poking a stick in the eye of politicians and developers before they get around to paving the Everglades. I appreciate that industry has to fight back, but I’m disturbed by its tactics in creating an “Astroturf” (fake grassroots) organization in order to confuse people.

In the end, the 1000 Friends of Florida compromise holds appeal. Elected officials are best equipped to make certain decisions, but must be held accountable. The unintended consequence of Hometown Democracy’s initiative, as drafted, could be people “pulling the ladder up” once they’re ensconced in their little piece of paradise.

Whatever you think, watch the Florida vote carefully next year; the outcome could affect planning elsewhere in future. And if you think Florida votes don’t matter I have two words for you: Al Gore!

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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