Builders Gear Up to Beat Amendment 4
A constitutional amendment that would put land-use changes before voters is providing its own political kick-start to a Florida development industry staggered by the lengthy economic downturn.
Despite a lousy economy, the loss of 28,000 construction jobs in the past year, and more than 300,000 unsold homes on the market in Florida, developers are rushing to get state approval for dozens of projects that require changing local comprehensive plan standards.
The industry also is putting millions of dollars into political committees fighting Amendment 4 – the so-called Hometown Democracy measure slated to go before voters in November. The measure would require all comp-plan changes to be approved by voters in a local referendum, which builders, governments, school boards and labor unions warn will yield an economic Ice Age in Florida by effectively stopping development.
“Uniformly, our members are very strongly against this,” said John Sebree, a vice-president of Florida Realtors, which pumped $1 million last month into a political committee fighting the amendment. “We’re a pretty bipartisan group. But everybody agrees this is going to change things dramatically.”
The organization spearheading opposition to Amendment 4, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, collected $4.7 million in the 3 ½-month period leading to a July 16 campaign finance reporting deadline. Other big donors Pulte Homes Corp., a Michigan-based builder which gave $567,000; $367,000 from Lennar builders in Miami; $440,000 from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which has long gone to bat for the development industry.
The citizens’ group has raised $5.8 million, according to finance reports – with builders K. Hovnanian of New Jersey and California’s Ryland Corp., and KB Homes among the bigger contributors. A host of Florida business groups also have powered the opposition campaign, including Florida Mainstream Merchants and Florida Power & Light.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Community Affairs has been flooded with proposals from local governments seeking to change their comprehensive land-use plans – apparently fueled by builder fear of the potential effect of Amendment 4, which needs approval from 60 percent of voters to become law.
The DCA adopted 29,197 plan amendments approved earlier by local governments in 2009 – more than three times the usual number of proposals the agency formerly received annually. Through mid-May, the latest figure available, more than 2,000 amendments had been sent to DCA from local officials.
Department officials acknowledge that many of the amendments sent to Tallahassee for review are small-bore changes. But the volume of changes sought also indicates that many developers are petitioning local governments to rework plans for projects that may never get built or, at least, will begin groundbreaking only when the economy turns around.
“It’s clear, though, a lot of people are trying to get ahead of Amendment 4,” said James Miller, a DCA spokesman.
Julie Hauserman, with the Florida Hometown Democracy campaign, said the high volume of plan amendments sent to DCA underscores the bond between city and county officials and developers -- who often are the largest contributors to local political campaigns.
“You’ve got to wonder why are local politicians approving comp-plan changes for future development when there’s a recession and empty strip malls across Florida,” Hauserman said.
While Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy has collected $5.7 million, Hometown Democracy through mid-July had collected $1.6 million, with $138,573 coming in the latest quarter. But Hometown Democracy has managed to spend virtually all that it has collected, according to campaign finance reports.
Citizens has bankrolled all but $440,000 for what is likely to prove a heavy television advertising campaign this fall.
The flood of comp-plan amendments and even the sizable contributions coming from building and real estate industries hit hard by the economy are “just another unintended consequence of Amendment 4,” said Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy.
“The whole purpose of Amendment 4 is to kick development proposals into court,” he added. “It’s really just a stimulus package for environmental lawyers.”
But Florida industries financing the opposition acknowledge the spending comes at a bleak time. Sebree, of the Florida Realtors, said his organization, which has 115,000 members, is more than 25 percent smaller than it was at the 2005-06 height of the state’s real estate boom.
The Florida Home Builders Association, with about 10,000 corporate members, is about half of its former size, said Doug Buck, the organization’s director of governmental affairs.
“We are a reflection of the devastation,” Buck said. “But everybody in this state is affected by construction. We’re going to do all we can so citizens understand what this amendment will do to this state’s economy.”