Developers Rush to Get Ahead of Amendment 4
The prospect of land-use changes going before voters if constitutional Amendment 4 is approved next year, is sparking an unprecedented crush of proposals being sent to state planning officials.
The Florida Department of Community Affairs has been buried under 937 packets of proposed comprehensive plan amendments from local governments so far this year, while the agency has already approved 50 percent more proposals than in 2007, the most comparable year.
Despite a lousy economy, unemployment at a 30-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.
“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,” DCA Secretary Tom Pelham told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
The Florida Hometown Democracy movement worked for years securing signatures and fending off opposition from the business and development community in getting Amendment 4 on next November’s ballot.
The measure, which would require all changes in comp-plans to be approved by voters in a local referendum, is almost certain to emerge as one of the most combative and costly political issues in 2010 Florida.
Building-trade organizations, Realtors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and local chambers are among the groups forming Floridians for Smarter Growth, a political committee which has vilified Amendment 4 as potentially yielding an economic Ice Age in Florida by stopping development.
On its website, the opponents of the amendment dismiss the Hometown Democracy leaders as “special interest” lawyers, and “hardcore extremists,” and cite such Amendment 4 supporters as Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner and a South Florida woman, Joyce Tarnow, who has advocated population control.
The hand-wringing is sparking plenty of action – at least on paper.
Many of the developments seeking approval to sidestep comp-plan standards may never be built or, at least, will begin groundbreaking only when the economy turns around, Pelham acknowledged.
Among them are the still speculative Farmton development straddling Brevard and Volusia counties, a 60,000-acre site the Miami Corp., is considering 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 said his agency is staying out of the Amendment 4 fight.
But Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer and president of Hometown Democracy, said the flood of proposed amendments shows that local and state officials are incapable of breaking their reliance on growth – even when the state’s economy has been badly damaged by the collapse of the state’s real estate market.
“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.”
While many of the organizations opposing Amendment 4, including economic development councils, the Florida Association of School Boards and others say that the state must diversify its economy and break its reliance on development, proposed fixes to Florida’s troubled economy remain generally rooted in more construction.
The latest attempt, Senate Bill 360, was approved by lawmakers last spring and relaxes requirements that transportation improvements be in place before development proceeds. It is currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by 20 local governments who claim it is unconstitutional.
Local governments, though, are generally wary of Amendment 4 – fearing it could lead to chaos by forcing votes on even non-controversial comp-plan changes.
“We believe it’s a no-growth amendment,” said Edie Ousley, a spokeswoman for the Florida Homebuilders Association, which has seen its membership fall 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.
According to DCA records, the agency through Tuesday has received 937 comp-plan amendment packets forwarded from local governments, compared with 880 in all of 2007. Last year, local governments were required to revise their local comp-plans – making those statistics not worthy of comparison.
But through Tuesday, 631 amendment packets were approved by DCA – compared with 410 in 2007.
“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.”