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In Florida, developers are lining up against environmental groups in a battle over rules, and the fight could determine how the state grows for decades to come.
Florida's history has always been shaped by developers. They've included railroad magnates, land speculators and an entertainment icon.
Unidentified Man: Walt Disney, a man of unique vision, saw the unlimited potential of Central Florida and set into motion plans for a new Disneyworld here that staggers the imagination. Bulldozers and land-taming equipment have carved out a 43-square-mile parcel of raw land.
BLOCK: After a century of near-relentless building, the results are mixed. While Florida is a prosperous state, its rapid development has led to sprawl, inadequate infrastructure, and a disastrous housing market.
Now, voters in the Sunshine State are being asked whether they want a direct role in deciding just who builds and where. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: It's called hometown democracy. That's a catchy name for a constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in November. If approved, it would radically change how Floridas communities decide to grow.
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 activists on both sides are campaigning across the state to get the word out.
Ms. LESLEY BLACKNER (Attorney): I think we're going to go ahead and get started here momentarily. Thank you for your patience.
ALLEN: In Boca Raton, the Progressive Democrats of America are meeting at a retirement community, and the speaker is Lesley Blackner. She calls herself the mother of Florida's hometown democracy movement,.
Ms. BLACKNER: For those of you all who haven't heard, Amendment 4 will be on the November ballot. And what it's going to do is let people, the voters, vote on certain land use changes.
ALLEN: Blackner has been working on this issue now for nearly eight years. She's a lawyer who represents environmental groups on land use issues, but she says she's fed up with how citizens are treated at county commission hearings.
Ms. BLACKNER: 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. 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.
ALLEN: 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.
Ms. BLACKNER: My fundamental insight is that land use is politics. And whoever owns the politics owns the land use. And right now, real estate speculators have pretty much bought the politics in Florida.
ALLEN: The hometown democracy amendment would put every proposed change to a community's comprehensive land use plan in Florida before the voters as a ballot referendum. That's a prospect that has mobilized the chambers of commerce, bankers, realtors, contractors and more than 200 other groups to create an organization to fight the amendment. The name suggests something that no one could be against: Citizens For Lower Taxes And A Stronger Economy.
I met the group's spokesman, Ryan Houck, at an executive airport in Fort Lauderdale, where he was speaking to one of the member groups, Associated Builders and Contractors. On one point, Houck agrees with Blackner that Florida has not managed its growth well.
Mr. RYAN HOUCK (Spokesman, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy): I think that Florida can and must do a better job when it comes to leading growth management. But, you know, at the end of the day, two wrongs don't make a right, and passing Amendment 4 won't improve growth management. It will replace growth management with a political campaign on every minor and technical revision to a local comprehensive plan.
ALLEN: 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. The city manager there, Mike Bonfield, says the measure has been contentious since it was adopted and is the subject of numerous lawsuits.
Mr. MIKE BONFIELD (City Manager, St. Petersburg Beach, Florida): 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.
ALLEN: If the amendment passes, that's something opponents say you may be seeing statewide: protracted legal battles over every part of the referendum process.
For a sense of what's at stake in the battle over the hometown democracy amendment, I traveled to the western edge of Miami-Dade County to see 10 acres of tomato fields. It's 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 is fighting to stop it.
Ms. LAURA REYNOLDS (Audubon Society): We're standing right on the line of the urban space, the part of the county that's developed.
ALLEN: It's called the urban development boundary. If the developer convinces the county to move it to the other side of his tomato fields, the value of the land goes up dramatically. He can build houses and shopping centers. But moving the boundary comes at a price. Reynolds, director of the local Audubon chapter, 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.
Ms. REYNOLDS: Every year it seems there is something coming up because they can actually ask for a time waiver. So right now there's a few large developments hanging over our heads that don't have an end point in sight. And so, you know, basically, every year we're dealing with the same thing.
ALLEN: Amendment opponent Ryan 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.
Mr. HOUCK: 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 soundbites and allow them to escape responsibility for these decisions. But that's what Amendment 4 does.
ALLEN: Lesley Blackner says 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, weakening 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 one out of every 57 homes is in foreclosure. She says it's left her with one inescapable conclusion.
Ms. BLACKNER: They're not going to reform things on their own. We're sort of forcing the system to go into rehab. They've driven drunk with the state. They drove us over the cliff. And now we're going to take the keys away.
ALLEN: Even opponents of the hometown democracy amendment concede that polls show it's supported by a majority of Floridians - 51 percent isn't enough, though. Under Florida law, backers of the hometown democracy amendment need the support of 60 percent of voters 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.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.