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Five Good Reasons to Vote Against ‘Hometown Democracy’

Shortly before his death more than two decades ago, John D. McDonald, the mystery writer who was also an ardent opponent of the wall-to-wall development that threatened to envelop the west coast of Florida near his Sarasota home, published a list of the state’s best scenic drives. His purpose was to encourage Floridians to see for themselves what ‘old time’ Florida was like before the last of it was swept away.

At the top of his list was State Road 13, the two-lane highway that wound its way along the eastern bank of the St. Johns River between Jacksonville and Hastings. While much of the scenery along State Road 13 looks the way it did twenty-five years ago, there’s no mistaking the fact that large portions of it have changed in ways that make it less appealing. Even rural Hastings, once the cabbage and potato capital of Florida, has attracted its share of new residential development.

I was born and raised in Florida and like most native Floridians of a certain age who remember what our state used to look like, it saddens me to see how much it’s changed.

But I’m also a realist who understands that Florida, with so much to offer, was always destined to evolve over time. That doesn’t mean we have to accept unbridled growth or embrace every proposed development that comes down the pike, but its does mean we need to accept the fact that Florida will continue to attract new residents and that as we grow our state will change in ways we may not like.

The solution to this problem lies in the application of reasonable controls (like the comprehensive plans already mandated by state law) that will allow for the level of continued development necessary to sustain us economically while still ensuring that growth takes place in an orderly manner that doesn’t overwhelm us.

What we don’t need, especially during this period of diminished prosperity, is the passage of Amendment 4 – the so-called ‘Hometown Democracy’ amendment – with its mandate that requires every change to a community’s comprehensive plan to be put before the voters for their approval. As one opponent described it, using Amendment 4 to control growth is “like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant.”

I support the comprehensive planning effort and I believe our communities would be better served if our elected officials demonstrated greater fidelity to the plans that are already in place, but Amendment 4 is not the way to achieve this. As it is written – and it’s written poorly – Amendment 4 is a prescription for disaster that will do immediate and lasting damage to Florida’s economy.

‘Hometown Democracy’ is a mass of contradictions based on a series of suspect claims and faulty premises that would, if passed, send the unmistakable signal that Florida was no longer business friendly. Whenever planning for a major start-up, expansion or relocation is subject to uncertainty you can be sure that business owners and major corporations will think twice before putting Florida on any short list.

Don’t believe me? Here are five very good reasons to vote against Amendment 4:

1. Advocates for ‘Hometown Democracy’ argue for its passage based on the faulty premise that “overdevelopment crashed Florida’s economy, leaving us with empty buildings and foreclosed subdivisions.”

Not true. Overbuilding was the symptom, not the cause.

The cause of the overbuilding was an overheated housing market fueled by lax lending standards and artificially low interest rates. At one point almost anyone could get a mortgage and the mortgages they got frequently featured artificially low interest rates – sometimes starting out at zero percent – that were tied to adjustable rate mortgages. These were the factors that combined to create the speculative bubble that “crashed Florida’s economy.”

It’s a fact: Oversupply results from an upsurge in demand and demand is closely tied to price. Since most of the purchase price of a home is financed, the ‘cost’ of a home is, in reality, the cost of the mortgage, i.e., the amount of the monthly mortgage payment. When interest rates are low people can afford to pay more for a house and when mortgages are handed out like candy, everyone is in the market to become a homeowner. As a result, housing prices were bid up beyond what they were actually worth so that when the bubble eventually burst, the market collapsed.

Look at it this way: If everyone in Northeast Florida suddenly received a low interest, $100,000 line of credit for the purpose of buying a new car, the price of automobiles would be bid up overnight to astronomical levels. When the credit dries up and the money to fund these purchases runs out, the bubble will burst and the market value of those cars will plummet. In such a scenario who’s at fault? The automobile manufacturers who built and sold the cars in the first place, or those who enabled the buyers to finance their purchases at prices that were unsustainable?

If you want to blame someone for the real estate crash, blame Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd. Don’t blame the developers for anything more than being just dumb enough to get sucked in by cheap money and plenty of hype.

As for the glut of commercial real estate that now sits vacant and that Amendment 4 organizers spend so much time complaining about, someone should remind them that those who own the empty storefronts and vacant warehouses are still required to pay property taxes regardless of occupancy rates.

2. ‘Hometown Democracy’ can’t deliver on the one thing it’s been promising Florida’s voters: An end to speculative real estate development.

‘Hometown Democracy’ supporters claim that rampant speculation in the real estate market led to excessive and unnecessary building, causing our economy tank. Their argument is that the referenda mandated by Amendment 4 are the only way voters can keep the development interests in check.

For this to be true, the effects of ‘Hometown Democracy’ would have to be fairly drastic, tamping down on speculative real estate development to the point where overbuilding would never be again be a problem.

But in an attempt to deflect criticism that Amendment 4 will damage Florida’s economy, their own website admits – and I swear I’m not making this up – that Florida’s “local master plans have plenty of land set aside for development [that] builders could be building right now if it weren’t for the busted real estate bubble. In fact, there’s enough land set aside in Florida’s local comprehensive plans right now accommodate 100 million people – five times more than the 18 million people we have living here now.”

Huh?

First they say the problem is too much development and that Amendment 4 is the only way voters can nix it, then they turn right around and admit that our existing land use arrangements will permit a level of future building and development sufficient to accommodate another 100 million souls. Which is it?

If the “speculators” are prone to overbuild and if overbuilding is the source of our problems, then what difference will ‘Hometown Democracy’ make if there’s already “enough land set aside” for overbuilding to occur under the comprehensive plans that are already in place?

3. Hometown Democracy will hurt Florida’s economy and kill jobs. It’s a prescription for a permanent recession.

If the purpose of Amendment 4 is to prevent a significant amount of commercial and residential real estate development then the inevitable result must be a diminished level of economic activity associated with that development. That there will be both immediate and long term financial consequences, direct and indirect, is beyond dispute. The only question is how much damage will be done to Florida’s economy.

According to a study by the Washington Economic Group, “Amendment 4’s passage will have potentially devastating consequences to Florida’s economy at a time when the economic situation at both the state and national levels is uncertain...[and] when attracting new businesses to Florida is essential…”.

As for the number of jobs that will be endangered if Amendment 4 passes, the study pegs those losses at just over 265,000. And this doesn’t include the loss of jobs that would have been created in the future had Florida voters rejected Amendment 4 outright. According to the study, “…Amendment 4…would affect the whole economy of Florida, [including the] loss of potential new businesses expanding to and locating in Florida and the loss of high-wage and high-skill jobs in sectors that may not be directly impacted by Amendment 4.”

The study also calculated the financial cost to Florida’s economy that would follow Amendment’s adoption and concluded that in the most likely scenario those losses would top $34 billion annually. This translates into a $2.1 billion impact on Northeast Florida alone which by my estimation would mean a direct hit of approximately $4,500 per household. This is no trifling sum and would be enough to set back the income gains of working families by at least a decade.

Note: The study by the Washington Economic Group was funded by the opponents of Amendment 4. However, no one inside the ‘Hometown Democracy’ movement has been able to credibly impugn its methodology, disprove its conclusions or offer up any plausible scenario for how Amendment 4 would not result in significantly reduced economic activity. That’s because the whole point of Amendment 4 is to paralyze Florida’s building sector without regard to its effect on our economy as whole!

4. The effects of Amendment 4 go far beyond land use and will involve every aspect of a community’s comprehensive plan.

Advocates like to say that Amendment 4 will only involve local ‘land-use’ decisions, suggesting that every other aspect of a community’s comprehensive plan is off limits and implying that voters will only have to concern themselves with one particularly narrow aspect of the planning process.

But Amendment 4 goes well beyond ‘land-use’ and will require citizens to vote on changes to every element of a community’s comprehensive plan. The Florida Supreme Court said as much in an advisory opinion back in 2005 when Amendment 4 was first under consideration.

As recounted in an editorial in the Palm Beach Post – the hometown paper of the organizers of ‘Hometown Democracy’ – “the court presented a lengthy and detailed list of what [portions of a community’s comprehensive plan] would be subject to a referendum. [The list included a comprehensive plan’s] capital improvement element; a future land-use plan element; a traffic circulation element … a sanitary sewer, solid waste, drainage, potable water, and natural groundwater aquifer recharge element; a conservation element; a recreation and open space element; a housing element; a coastal management element; an intergovernmental coordination element; a transportation element; an airport master plan; a public buildings and related facilities element; a recommended community design element; a general area redevelopment element; a safety element; a historical and scenic preservation element; an economic element ..."

Don’t want to believe the justices of the Florida Supreme Court? Then check out the website of the Department of Community Affairs, the state agency tasked with overseeing the process by which local governments create and implement their comprehensive plans. According to the DCA, “comprehensive plans contain chapters or "elements" that address future land use, housing, transportation, infrastructure, coastal management, conservation, recreation and open space, intergovernmental coordination, and capital improvements.”

“Vote No on 4”, the most vocal of the groups aligned against Amendment 4, makes the point even more bluntly when it says that “Amendment 4 is so poorly written that it doesn’t even provide exceptions for vital community needs such as hospitals, police stations and schools.”

Because referenda could not be limited only to maters involving ‘land-use’, the conclusion of the Palm Beach Post editorial board was that “ballots would be packed with arcane matters. Routine government activity could slow”.

5. The referenda required by ‘Hometown Democracy’ will invite endless litigation.

Imagine an environment in which even the most routine matters touching upon any aspect of a city or county’s comprehensive plan must be placed before the voters for their approval; a world in which plan amendments must appear on the ballot as precisely worded summaries acceptable to all parties.

In the polarized and fractious world of radical no-growth environmental groups vs. real estate developers, does anyone really think the respective parties will work cooperatively to achieve a just and equitable outcome?

It’s much more likely that the lawyers for each side will contest the wording of ballot summaries – which by statute cannot exceed 75 words in length and must accurately reflect the nature and scope of any proposed change – by filing lawsuits challenging those summaries prior to every election.

Consider the experience of St. Pete Beach where a local version of Amendment 4 was passed several years ago. The city has been sued numerous times and by various interest groups over the wording of ballot summaries when those interest groups were afraid the wording would place them at a disadvantage. Even if the suit failed to change the ballot language before the referendum, it would give plaintiffs who didn’t like the outcome the standing they’d need to continue litigating after the election in the hope of overturning the result or tying up the project in court.

One public official close to the situation who was interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times predicts that if Amendment 4 passes, the litigation over ballot summaries experienced by St. Pete Beach would “quickly become ‘copy and paste’ lawsuits, readily available to any disgruntled special-interest group on the losing end of a land-planning referendum.”

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We don’t live in a democracy; we live in a republic, a democratic republic where we elect leaders to represent us. These leaders are in turn bound by the rule of law and by our Constitution and if they act in a manner contrary to what voters expect, are subject to removal from office on Election Day.

Plebiscites and referenda may have a role to play when deciding on major bond issues or tax initiatives, but using them for the purpose of routine decision making sets a dangerous precedent that runs the risk paralyzing our cities and counties in between elections.

Here it is in a nut shell: Either we trust our system of representative government or we don’t. It’s that simple.

18 Responses »

  1. You missed one important letter in your long-winded explanation: The letter "d". If you would have said,"we live(d) in a democratic republic" you would have come much closer to the truth. As facts show, we live in a sicuety that is ruled by special interest and corrupt politicians.

    Look ar rhe facts and numbers as of today:
    1.) Florida's economy is non-existent.
    2.) Florida has the highest unemployment rate in the last 50 years
    3.) Estimated 370,000 homes and/or condos are EMPTY -- number is growing!
    4.) Florida's real estate market is dead -- you can barely give your home away!
    5.) The flow of new retirees from up North has stopped. Period!
    6.) More people are moving out of Florida than into Florida .
    7.) Florida is ranked No. 1 of the 50 states on a "most corrupt politician" list.

    AND ALL THAT WITHOUT AMENDMENT 4!

    If a team doesn't win -- and the numbers above are embarrassing -- you change coach, players and system -- most likely all of if, considering your team is last in the standings.

    Amendment 4 changes the players from greedy developers and corrupt politicians to citizens who care about their neighborhoods. Considering the mess we are in here in Florida any change can only improve the situation. Being last in the standings you can only improve!

    • Your facts are made up and simply wrong.
      Much of this is nothing but propaganda that is based on incorrect data. Much like man-made global warming. Made up. False. And dangerous.
      Your solution is lunacy.
      When your team doesn't win changing the SYSTEM is NOT the answer.
      Progressive Liberals like you are what the problem is.
      If you want Socaialism better known as Social Justice and Democracy, go live in another country. We don't want your Progressive agenda here.
      I'm tired of the minority trying to make the majority heel.

    • I invite you to take a look at the city of St. Pete Beach, FL. Take a look at the destruction 'home town democracy' has done there.

  2. Robin Lumb’s five points about Hometown Democracy

    Let's take these points in order. Mr. Lumb's first quarrel with Hometown Democracy is really his analysis of Florida’s overbuilding problem. His "overbuilding is a symptom not a cause" point. I'd suggest that what has placed Florida in the lead of those states with severely troubled housing markets is generically a criticism of Fed policies made much worse by failure of elected officials and developers in Florida to anticipate and react to the slowdown in immigration in recent years and predicted to continue. Remember, that Hometown Democracy will double check decisions at the elected local level when developers bring their sub division proposals through their doors. I'm hard pressed to see that anything has changed in the recent years to suggest that anything less than a "sledgehammer" is sufficient to jar Florida officials out of traditional development approval habits.

    On his second point, Mr. Lumb suggests that there is something internally contradictory about Hometown Democracy's verifiable claim that there is plenty of approved available land for construction given the predicted immigration in coming years, on one hand, and the intent of Hometown Democracy to limit approvals. I think Mr. Lumb misses the point here. Hometown Democracy contends that voters should have the capability of deciding what should be built in their neighborhoods that will affect their taxes, traffic congestion, open spaces, conservation, habitat and generally issues that impact their quality of life.

    The third point on job loss relies on the work of the Washington Economics Group. Mt Lumb deserves credit for identifying the WEG's work as paid for by adversaries of Amendment 4. But he overstates the quality of the WEG's conclusions and suggests the methodology is OK. WEG uses "IMPLAN" formulas to extrapolate numbers from job loss or gain. This methodology is perfectly good and proven, however, if the assumptions are either incorrect or non existent, the IMPLAN results are, as leading Florida economists have put it, "garbage in, garbage out". Recently, the Collins Institute, a non partisan academic organization here in Florida stated that the WEG conclusions, bacause of the assumption problem, were effectively worthless.

    On Mr. Lumb's 4th point about the language of the Amendment being wide open to interpretation, let me again explain. In the 2005 Florida Supreme court decision, the court opined that the Amendment language was too vague. The next year tighter language was submitted to the court and approved. This decision agreed that land use was indeed the subject of the amendment not other elements of a comprehensive plan which Mr. Lumb goes into at some length to suggest there is no focus to the amendment. And I can't resist smiling at Mr. Lumb's reference to the Palm Beach Post as a reputable resource on Amendment 4. That newspaper is adamantly opposed to the Hometown Democracy proposal.

    And Mr. Lumb's 5th and last point is that once A4 is approved and followed, communities will be subject to endless and expensive litigation. That is the now famous St Pete Beach conundrum. Again, let me try to explain and keep it as simple as possible. There are today, according to the town manager, around $750,000 dollars worth of lawsuits for and against the town, some from developers who wished to increase the height and density of the beachfront hotels and condominiums. Others from citizens’ groups which opposed the pro development decisions. A classic confrontation began between the developers and their supporters on one hand, and the citizens on the other. At the end of the day a compromise was reached but many of the suits are still outstanding. I could easily spin this argument as I have in various presentations, but it's easier to simply refer the reader to the conclusions of POLITIFACT, the joint truth seeking project of the Miami Herald and the St Petersburg Times. After a frankly a mind boggling analysis, Politifact concluded that the St Pete Beach issue is indeed "a mess". And they cautioned anyone to be wary of using the example to justify opposition to amendment 4. It's just a very different case. Another town on the Gulf Coast, Yankeetown tried to use the Amendment 4 model in changing their comprehensive plan and it worked out quite well. There was a developer lawsuit and it was thrown out by the court.

    I usually don't go to this length to respond to a columnist, but when the allegations and statements are so far off one can only conclude that they are either made deliberately or are reached from lack of diligence in the basic research.

    • You make some valid points, but much of your argument is spurious. Nearly every major newspaper in the state is opposed to A4, not only the PB Post. Yankeetown is a community of about 700 people. This is not an example representative of most Florida communities. St. Pete Beach has overwhelmingly voted to repeal the failed experiment with Hometown Democracy, but lawsuits have been filed to keep it in place. This amendment benefits nobody but the lawyers.

  3. Sorry, I forgot to add my comment about representative democracy which Mr. Lumb treats us to at the end of his piece. If I remember correctly, the Florida constitution, along with those of many other states (not all), allows a role for "initiative, recall and referendum" as a device to decide how to amend the state constitution. It's sort of parallel to a similar process of amending the U.S. Constitution; and the process has significant hurdles built in. This process, you may recall, became popular at the turn of the last century during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. That period, the Gilded Age" was marked by corruption and greed that needed a way to sweep out the corruption as Woodrow Wilson later described it. So referenda for state constitution amendments is contemplated in our laws and does not conflict with Jefferson's,Tom Paine's or other founding fathers' concept of representative democracy. Enough for today.

  4. Peter and Jan are simply wrong. These two progressives like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and now the current Progressives want to shove hometown democracy down the throat of citizens. Frankly Peter and Jan are in the minority and fortunately most American's and Northeast Floridian's recognize that the minority is trying to dictate to the majority.
    Peter and Jan- go live in a democracy. Your failed ideas are not welcome in this republic.

  5. Hometown Democracy Amendment 4 is simply another Progressive hatched plan supported by progressives like Peter and Jan that wish to derail our current system of government.
    Peter, if you want to decide how YOUR community is developed simply get involved in your representative government and stop trying to go around it.
    Jan, If the team doesn't win YOU DON"T CHANGE THE SYSTEM!! When the Jaguars lost, you think changing the rules or better yet how you play football is the way to win?? You and progressives like you are what makes reforms like HOMETOWN DEMOCRACY lunacy.

  6. In each confrontation, there are winners, there are losers and there are unintended consequences. As I read the wording of amendment 4, I can’t help but wonder who the winners, losers and what the unintended consequences might be.

    There’s little doubt that development will become more expensive, so as long as I don’t need those services, I’ll be fine.

    And no doubt the business community will suffer and as the tax revenue shrivels, local government will be forced to shrink also. But again, if I don’t need those services, I’ll be fine.

    I’m not a land use attorney, so there’s little chance of me benefiting from the passage in that aspect. And given the economic prediction, I’ll be retiring early, unless…

    Unless…, I can sell my services as a professional voter. Who else but those immediately affected, and a professional voter are going to show up, read three or four hundred comp plan changes, and vote on them? This could work!

    Hello, greedy developer, I’ve already decided to vote for your change, but I need to be compensated for my time, I’m sure we can work something out. Also, I’ve compiled a, ProVote list and for a little compensation of my professional time, I’ll be glad to forward it to you.

    Hello, hospital foundation…

    So many amendments, so little time… And to think I used to have to work for this kind of money…

  7. Every point made in this article has a counterpoint, intentionally excluded. The facts within are extremist and unfair. I love Florida, and I do believe growth is necessary; the growth we intended when we made our comprehensive plans NOT the growth unwanted by the democracy we are a part of.

    • Shannon, we are NOT a democracy. Not at all. We are a Republic.
      Take a look at St. Pete Beach, FL and what happened to them when this legislation was voted in there. Then take a look at what happened when they decided it was such a bad idea that they wanted to get rid of it.

    • Shannon representative government works when YOU become involved. Simply thinking that the masses must vote on everything shows you don't understand reality. Many people are not involved even in today's elections. Yet you think some democracy solution will solve planning for the future in North Florida? You are delusional at best. Hometown Democracy is NOT the solution, good people are. Get INVOLVED! don't pass this as a way for uninformed people to vote.

  8. While it may seem good at first it is NOT what we need in FL, anywhere! If everything has to be voted on, the time and effort to get it passed would be mind boggling. It would cost the supervisor of elections in each of the county thousands to get it printed onto the ballot and they would be pages and pages in length! There aren't enough trees to cover that! Then who would even take the time to read each of them? Perhaps it isn't perfect now, but we don't need MORE regulations... LESS please!!!! Isn't Obamacare enough "in our business"? Let US think for ourselves!!!

  9. I don't know how this became a liberal vs. conservative issue, but I am a liberal/progressive democrat that sees this amendment is lunacy. If you carry this amendment to it's logical conclusion, maybe we need to have an election to send the fire department to your house when it's burning. We elect people to represent us and if we don't like it, vote them out. That's not liberal or conservative, that's the way the system works.

    • thats why liberalism is a lie. Progressivism is just a lack of understanding why limited government our founders created works and socialism/democracy is lunacy.

      • You evidently missed the point I was trying to make. I am a liberal and I still say that this is NOT a liberal vs. conservative issue. It is a VERY BAD amendment and will cost Florida millions of jobs. I urge everyone I know to vote against it. In other words "VOTE NO ON 4", can I be any more clear? How you vote otherwise is up to you.

      • Brian,
        Stop the name calling. Everything is not black or white, right or left, conservative or liberal. You're giving Brians a bad name.

  10. All I get out of this LOOK AT WASHINGTON DC!! Some people should not vote or procreate!!! Until we fix that problem I say NO to #4!!