Smart Growth vs Hometown Democracy

Recurring allegations that members of the St. Johns County Commission are influenced in their decisions by big-money developers may quiet down next year, if State Constitution Amendment 4 is approved in November.

In significant part, Amendment 4 will require that all comprehensive plan changes be approved by voters in a local referendum — not by county or state government.

James Miller, Director of Public Affairs for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, reported to Historic City News that through December 15th, they have received 937 packets of proposed comprehensive plan amendments from local governments this year — 631 comprehensive plan amendment packets have already received State approval.

Compare today’s comprehensive plan change requests to 2007. Only 889 requests were received that year — 410 of which received approval.

Why the sudden increase in requests and approvals for scores of projects that don’t meet local comprehensive plan standards? Didn’t the developers get the e-mail? The economy tanked, unemployment is at a 30-year high and there are more than 300,000 unsold homes on the market in Florida.

Arguably, many of the developments seeking approval to sidestep comp-plan standards may never be built, or, at least, will not begin breaking ground until after the economy turns around.

Although state planning officials have been quoted saying that they are staying out of the Amendment 4 fight, the News Service of Florida reported that Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham told them “If they can get it in the comp-plan now, they don’t have to worry about going before voters.”

Pelham reportedly said, “The irony is that these landowners – who so fear having comp-plan changes go before voters that they’re hurrying-up their development plans – really just adds fuel to the fire of those who say the voters need to have a say in these approvals.”

So the question remains. Are the developers afraid that citizen voters in St. Johns County will not approve future applications for large scale residential and commercial developments if Amendment 4 passes?

There are at least two organized schools of thought that have received growing media coverage of late.

First, Floridians for Smarter Growth, a political committee which has vilified Amendment 4 as potentially yielding an “economic Ice Age” in Florida by stopping development, has been formed by building-trade organizations, Realtors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and local chambers.

Secondly, the Florida Hometown Democracy movement has worked for years securing signatures and fending off opposition from the business and development community to get Amendment 4 on next November’s ballot.

While many of the organizations opposing Amendment 4, including economic development councils, the Florida Association of School Boards and others, say that the state must diversify its economy and break its reliance on development, proposed fixes to Florida’s troubled economy remain generally rooted in more construction.

Florida Hometown Democracy, who supports Amendment 4, say the flood of proposed amendments shows that local and state officials are incapable of breaking their reliance on growth – even when the state’s economy has been badly damaged by the collapse of the state’s real estate market. They feel opponents to Amendment 4 will bring back the housing bubble, no matter what damage it has done to the state.

Two things are for certain — developers are in fact rushing to get state approval at an unprecedented rate and Amendment 4 is almost certain to emerge as one of the most combative and costly political issues in Florida during 2010.