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.”
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.”
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.