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Florida lawmakers marching to developers' beat
BY MYRIAM MARQUEZ Miami Herald
More than 300,000 empty houses and condos in Florida are waiting for a buyer.
Big box stores like Circuit City -- the nation's second-largest consumer electronics retailer -- closed for good on Sunday, giving pink slips to thousands.
Linens 'n Things, Home Depot's Expo Design Centers? All goners.
Empty homes, empty stores, growing unemployment. Whom do we blame?
Why not blame the state's rules governing growth, the ones meant to protect Floridians' quality of life?
That's what some lawmakers in Tallahassee are doing. Egged on by developers desperate to make the math work for their new projects at a time when credit is super tight, lawmakers have come up with a wild plan to ''fix'' what ails us: Dismantle the Department of Community Affairs, loosen rules on building in swampland and let local governments do their thing without the state's check and balance.
THE DEVELOPERS' MANTRA
Because, hey, we're in a recession, buddy, and we need to build everywhere!
Except growth-management rules haven't tanked Florida's economy. We all know there was hyper-growth the past five years based on speculators swooping in and building on a whim and a loan. Nobody griped about growth management then. Now the banks have bailed and the credit has dried up, and legislators want to pretend the problem is the Department of Community Affairs?
It's crazy. The DCA keeps locals honest when they want to skip ''little'' things. You know, like ensuring our water supply remains adequate and that new subdivisions don't overwhelm schools and cram ever more cars on already jammed roads -- or that our waterways don't die from seeping sewage from too many homes and businesses built in the wrong place.
Protecting Florida's pristine areas and its residents from hop-scotch growth isn't a liberal idea. Under Gov. Jeb Bush, a proud, card-carrying conservative, the Legislature passed Florida's first growth-management overhaul in years. Under that law, counties are required to plan growth with their local school districts. And local governments have to make sure there's enough drinking water before a new development is given a green light.
And under that law, some rules also were streamlined to help move construction along and not add to the costs.
So what's really behind this push to disband the DCA?
Florida has thousands of acres available for building within designated areas that don't require state review. Ah, but that's not enough for greedy speculators who want cheap land far away from water and sewer services, and would love for the taxpayers to pick up the tab by ditching developers' responsibility to pay for those services through impact fees.
A GOOD STEWARD
DCA Secretary Tom Pelham has been a good steward of Florida's land -- which may be what's behind this Greedy Developers Act. His agency has blocked megadevelopments in the middle of nowhere that want to scrimp on schools or roads and ignore wetland rules meant to protect the quality of our waterways.
Gov. Charlie ''The Green Man'' Crist wants to combat climate change, too, and the DCA is working energy efficiency into Florida's building code and transportation networks so new buildings don't waste as much energy and so vehicles run on cleaner fuel.
In poll after poll, the vast majority of Floridians say they back The Green Man. We want our Florida lifestyle protected while there's still one to protect.
Our views: Playing with fire
New moves to abolish Florida’s growth management laws cannot stand
State lawmakers in Tallahassee are playing with fire, and residents along the Space Coast and throughout Florida could get seriously burned.We’re talking about the newest moves in the Legislature to dismantle the state’s growth management laws and abolish necessary safeguards that taxpayers have supported for a quarter century to try to control development. And make certain they don’t get stuck with the bill for building more roads, schools and other infrastructure and watch helplessly as growth consumes dwindling drinking water supplies and asphalt replaces wetlands.
Facts of life
Brevard County citizens were all too familiar with — and angry about — before the recession and will likely confront again when the economy recovers and growth inevitably returns.
However, the powerful development lobby and its legislator allies — including at least two from Brevard — continue using the recession as a guise to gut oversight, falsely claiming the rules hamper growth and that removing them will magically help turn Florida’s economy around.
The true picture
Here’s the truth:
Most of the state’s permitting regulations were in place during the recent boom and didn’t stop growth.
Instead, speculation-fueled development triggered a binge that has stuck Florida with 300,000 homes now vacant, state figures show.
In all, even with the Growth Management Act, the state’s population has risen from 11 million to nearly 19 million in the past 25 years, showing the disingenuous nature of the development industry’s rhetoric.
Brevard alone saw development swallow about 35 square miles of forests — an area the size of Melbourne and Cocoa combined — between 1995 and 2000, according to a study by the St. Johns River Water Management District.That’s ignored in the Legislature, where Republican-led efforts are gaining momentum to abolish the Department of Community Affairs, which was created in 1985 as part of the landmark Growth Management Act to prevent irresponsible development.
The bill recently passed the House Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee with State Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, among its supporters.
The measure would shift what remained of the agency to the Department of State, which knows nothing about controlling growth and is busy with elections, corporate records and other matters.
Damaging the state
DCA Secretary Tom Pelham has warned the switch would “eviscerate the growth management process to the detriment of our state,” the St. Petersburg Times reported. He also said neither the Senate or House has even bothered to conduct a thorough review of what the agency does.
Smart-growth advocates have similar concerns.
Phil Laurien, executive director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council, of which Brevard is a member, says while growth management laws do need sensible reform, killing the Department of Community Affairs is not the way to do it.
He’s also concerned about a bill co-sponsored by Brevard GOP Sen. Mike Haridopolos that would end state-mandated reviews for developments of regional impact. Among them is West Viera, which could add 26,000 residents during the next 20 to 30 years.
The studies do a good job of evaluating a project’s impact on roads, the environment and surrounding cities and should be continued, Laurien says.Meanwhile, other legislative proposals include eliminating impact fees that require developers to help pay for roads, sewers and schools, and cutting in half the time necessary to examine permits to wipe out wetlands that are crucial to replenish fast-shrinking drinking water supplies.
Taxpayers would suffer
These efforts should not be confused with common sense initiatives to speed up local planning reviews and building permits to lure critically needed new manufacturing and high technology industry to Brevard.
The Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast is advocating that approach and it deserves the backing of local cities and the county to recoup the thousands of jobs that will be lost when NASA’s shuttle fleet retires next year.
But, with momentum growing elsewhere to gut needed growth management safeguards, it’s time for Gov. Crist — who has a strong pro-growth management and environmental protection record — to say they won’t stand. And that he’ll use his veto pen to kill them if necessary.
Residents in Brevard and statewide know how difficult it is to manage growth with the laws already in place. Removing them wholesale would be a disaster for which taxpayers would pay a very steep price.