Florida Land Use Changes Could Be In Voters' Hands

After a century of near-relentless building by developers, voters in Florida will decide whether they want a direct role in determining who builds and where.

It's called "hometown democracy," a constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in November. If approved, the measure — also known as Amendment 4 — would radically change how Florida’s communities decide to grow.

Under Amendment 4, cities and counties that want to make changes to their comprehensive land use plans — their blueprints for future growth — would for the first time have to get those changes approved by voters. A lot is at stake, and it has developers and builders lining up against environmental groups. And activists on both sides are campaigning across the state to get the word out.

'Land Use Is Politics'

Lesley Blackner, who calls herself the "mother" of Florida's Hometown Democracy movement, spoke recently to a meeting of the Progressive Democrats of America in Boca Raton. Blackner has been working on this issue now for nearly eight years. She's a lawyer who represents environmental groups on the land use issue, and she says she's fed up with how citizens are treated at county commission hearings.

"Well, many of the commissioners are very dismissive. They look at their BlackBerrys. They read the newspaper. They look at the agenda. They're not really focused on the citizens," Blackner says. "The citizens get three minutes, and then they're told to shut up. And it seemed, not always, but many times, that these decisions were a done deal before the public hearing."

As growth management laws go, Florida actually has fairly good ones. All cities and counties are required to develop plans for future growth — plans that determine how much land will be allocated for housing, for commercial areas, for parks, for agriculture.

Blackner says the problem is how easily developers can change those plans. All they need to do, she says, is convince a majority of members on a given county commission.

"My fundamental insight is that land use is politics. Whoever owns the politics owns the land use, and right now, real estate speculators have pretty much bought the politics in Florida," Blackner says.

Make Way For Long Court Battles?

The Hometown Democracy amendment would put every proposed change to a community's comprehensive land use plan before the voters as a ballot referendum. That's a prospect that has mobilized the chambers of commerce, bankers, real estate agents, contractors and more than 200 other organizations. They created a group called Citizens For Lower Taxes And A Stronger Economy to fight the amendment.

Ryan Houck, the organization's spokesman, recently spoke to a member group, Associated Builders and Contractors, at an executive airport in Fort Lauderdale.

On one point, Houck agrees with Blackner that Florida has not managed its growth well.

"I think that Florida can and must do a better job when it comes to leading growth management. But at the end of the day, two wrongs don't make a right, and passing Amendment 4 won't improve growth management," Houck says. "It will replace growth management with a political campaign on every minor and technical revision to a local comprehensive plan."

The idea of giving final approval to voters is something that's been adopted by some local communities around the country, including St. Petersburg Beach in Florida. Mike Bonfield, the city manager, says the measure has been contentious since it was adopted and is the subject of numerous lawsuits.

"We've run into now a whole list of issues relating to ballot language and procedural issues as it related to the voting that we're having to defend in court," Bonfield says.

If Amendment 4 passes, opponents predict protracted legal battles over every part of the referendum process statewide.

Urban Development Boundary

At the western edge of Miami-Dade County, there are 10 acres of tomato fields on land that's zoned for agriculture. But the owner wants the county to change its comprehensive land use plan to allow this area to be used for houses and a shopping center.

Laura Reynolds, director of the local Audubon Society chapter, is fighting to stop it.

The land is right on the line of the urban development boundary. If the developer convinces the county to move the boundary to the other side of the tomato fields, the value of the land goes up dramatically. Houses and shopping centers can be built. But moving the boundary comes at a price. Reynolds says the county has to provide costly services and loses precious agricultural land.

She says that hasn't stopped the county commission from granting many similar requests.

"Every year it seems there is something coming up, because they can actually ask for a time waiver. So right now there are a few large developments hanging over our heads that don't have an end point in sight," says Reynolds. "So basically, every year we're dealing with the same thing."

Amendment opponent Houck concedes that voters are frustrated with how city and county commissions make decisions on growth and development.

But comprehensive land use plans, he says, are complex documents not suited to 75-word ballot summaries and political ad campaigns. He thinks the answer is to expect more of elected officials, not less.

"At a time when we're demanding more accountability for elected officials, let's not make it easier to turn these planning decisions into 30-second sound bites and allow them to escape responsibility for these decisions," Houck says. "That's what Amendment 4 does."

Needs 60 Percent Support

Blackner says that when she first began working on the amendment, she thought the state Legislature might head off the measure by adopting stronger growth management rules. Instead, the Legislature has done the opposite and has weakened the state agency that oversees growth and development statewide.

Blackner says runaway development — building too much, too fast — has meant Florida is a state where home values have collapsed and where 1 out of every 57 homes is in foreclosure.

She says it has left her with one inescapable conclusion.

"They're not going to reform things on their own. We're sort of forcing the system to go into rehab," Blackner says. "They've driven drunk with the state. They drove us over the cliff. And now we're going to take the keys away."

Even opponents of the Hometown Democracy amendment concede that polls show it's supported by a majority of Floridians. But 51 percent isn't enough. Under Florida law, backers of the amendment need the support of 60 percent of voters to pass it in November's election.

Both sides are expected to spend millions on their campaigns to influence a vote that may help shape the next century of Florida's history.

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