Communities' comprehensive plans become target for constitutional amendment

August 18, 2003

By JEREMY COX, jgcox@naplesnews.com
Naples News


Naples, Florida - It worked for backers of a statewide high-speed rail system. It also put a lid on bursting school class sizes. Most famously or infamously it forced farmers to liberate their pregnant pigs.

Now, a Palm Beach County-based nonprofit group hopes to follow in the footsteps of those and other constitutional amendments that started with a petition drive and ended with a majority vote at the ballot box.

If the grass-roots movement succeeds, cities and counties could no longer deviate from their comprehensive plans without voters saying so first. Too often, the proposal's supporters say, developers are able to convince elected officials to change growth blueprints for the sake of more houses, increased densities and taller buildings.

"Comprehensive plans are supposed to protect us from bad development," said Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach environmental attorney. "But over the years, instead of the plans controlling the development, development has made a mockery of these plans."

In June, Blackner and Ross Burnam, a Tallahassee attorney who worked for the state Department of Community Affairs, formed Florida Hometown Democracy. The group is trying to collect the 488,000 signatures needed to get the issue on the November 2004 ballot.

Getting there won't be easy, Blackner said. Unlike many previous amendment drives, this one has little financial backing. For instance, C.C. Dockery, a Lakeland businessman, spent $2.7 million during his successful push in 2000 to thread a high-speed railway between Florida's population centers.

So far, about 5,500 people across the state have signed the petition, Blackner said Thursday. Her group, though, got a big boost earlier this month when the Sierra Club threw in its support.

In booming Southwest Florida, where the population is expected to bubble over 1.3 million by 2030, anti-growth proponents are cheering the movement. Meanwhile, developers and builders are warning the proposed amendment would destroy their industry and the area's growth-buoyed economy.

The region has become famous for its frenzied pace of development. Year after year, Lee and Collier counties rank high among the nation's fastest growing counties. Many environmentalists say it's time to slow down.

"I think we are maxed out," said Lori Glenn, a Bonita Springs resident and board member of the Sierra Club's local chapter. "We need to realize what's more important the Bert Harris Act or the environment and the state's future."

Property owners often use the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act, passed by the state lawmakers in 1995, as a shield against land-conservation efforts.

Penny Taylor is a Naples City Councilwoman who objected to the city's recent drive to encourage development in the U.S. 41-10th Street corridor, the so-called "Heart of Naples." The plan passed on June 18 over her lone dissenting vote.

To her, the affair illustrated why Floridians would want to strip politicians of their powers to manage growth.

"In Florida, there are a lot of people leaving areas because of the amount of development. I'm hearing that in Naples. We can't grow anymore. Growth increases taxes, increases traffic, increases crime," Taylor said.

"I don't have confidence in public officials because so much has gone on."

The idea of trying to curb development at the voting booth is nothing new in Naples.

In a move that's remarkably similar to Florida Hometown Democracy's, a Port Royal man is spearheading a group that is seeking to override the Heart of Naples plan with a referendum. Jim Kessler's Honesty in Government group gathered nearly 1,600 signatures to put the item on a ballot in February.

But Kessler has grave reservations about ceding all land-use decisions to the public as Blackner's group proposes.

"Right now, it sounds terribly cumbersome," Kessler said of the proposed constitutional amendment. "That may be overkill. I don't know how they would make it work. That would end building, wouldn't it?"

Yes, local building industry leaders say.

Michael Reitmann, executive director of the Lee County Building Industry Association, scoffed when he first heard about the movement about a week ago.

"This is just a move under the guise of causing no more growth in the state of Florida," Reitmann said. "The assumption is the elected officials are in the pocket of the building industry. But we probably have 10 workshops on comp plan amendments, so it does have public input."

He says if voters had the final say over development, they would deny all new building. And most people wouldn't understand what they were voting for.

"They will vote by whatever the newspapers say. I can tell you in Southwest Florida that the Naples Daily News and the News-Press are very anti-growth," Reitmann said.

That would lead to unintended consequences, said Bill Slavich, president of Naples-based Empire Builders Inc.

"If in fact that passes, you can throw affordable housing out the window," said Slavich, who is also president of the Florida Home Builders Association. "So, where are the policemen, the firefighters and the teachers going to live?"

Despite doomsday predictions, the proposal would have no effect on the brunt of the new development that takes place in Lee and Collier, planners say.

Those county governments receive scores of requests every year from developers seeking to change their land from one zoning classification to another, typically to allow for more building. But rarely do those requests require a comprehensive plan amendment.

Take the northernmost of the two counties. Over the last two years, only three projects have run afoul of Lee County's comprehensive plan, said Paul O'Connor, the county's planning chief.

The most controversial is a requested land-use change that would allow 90 homes to be built on half of a 60-acre property at the western end of Pine Road in Estero. The land is nestled against the Estero Scrub Preserve. Environmental experts have said the Estero 60 land provides valuable wildlife habitat and acts as a buffer for the adjacent preserve.

But county commissioners voted 3-2 in June to submit the project to the state Department of Community Affairs for its endorsement. The DCA reviews all proposed comprehensive plan changes. Commissioners said they had little choice but to sign off on the project because the state had refused to buy the land.

Such land-use dilemmas are full of nuances that, if put up to a popularity contest, would likely "come down to emotional decisions rather than technical ones," O'Connor said.

Besides those three developer-pushed requests, he noted, there were another 45 proposed comprehensive plan amendments that were solicited by the county itself. Their impact ranged from an overhaul of Pine Island's growth regulations to minor wording changes meant to reflect newly coined state agencies.

Blackner said she has no problem with those types of changes. Under her proposal, those changes could be rounded up under one ballot item to save voters' time. Her concerns lie with developers getting their way over and over again.

"What we see is when people want to amend the comp plan, it's because they don't want to play by those rules," she said. "So they just go to their government and get it all changed. Why are we authorizing development the public doesn't want?"

If the constitutional amendment clears all the hurdles, state and local planners would still review comprehensive plan changes. But instead of the outcome being decided at public meetings, it would either go to regularly scheduled elections or special elections.

But often reality can get in the way of a good theory. That appears to be the proposed amendment's biggest foe, said Win Everham, chair of Florida Gulf Coast University's Division of Ecological Studies.

He agrees that the current system is broken: "I have a sense that we create a comprehensive growth plan. Then we in piecemeal modify it too readily. Then we refuse to look at the long-term impact of those changes."

But, given the preponderance of minor changes and technical knowledge that would be required to understand them, elected officials not voters are the most suited to decide future land uses.

"It's a representative democracy," Everham said.

For more information about the proposed amendment, visit www.floridahometowndemocracy.com.

 

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