We already have Hometown Democracy

By: Tom Patton
January 4th, 2010
Original article appeared in The Jacksonville Observer

Among the items that will appear on the ballot in November is Amendment 4, also known as the Hometown Democracy Amendment to the Florida Constitution. Amendment 4 is a bad idea.

On its face, it might sound like a good thing, and that’s about as far as its supporters hope you’ll go. Basically, any change in a city’s comprehensive land use plan would be required to be put to a referendum, placed on a ballot and approved by voters. The result will be either expensive special elections, or a completely bogged down system with impossibly long ballots.

According to Florida statute, each of the state’s 67 counties and 410 municipalities must have a comprehensive land use plan. The plans “guide future growth and development. 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,” according to myflorida.com. It is also where the counties and municipalities set concurrency rules that require developers to provide for infrastructure when putting in a new development. There is a state comprehensive plan as well, and should Amendment 4 pass, every time someone asked for or needed a change in one of those plans applicable to your area, you’d be asked to vote on it. Meanwhile, the person or organization asking for the change would be required to sit on their hands until that vote occurred. If the vote went against them, no changes could take place. Thousands of business decisions would be subject to a popular vote. Development, already in the economic doldrums here in the state of Florida, could conceivably grind to a complete halt. Right now, that wouldn’t take much.

Supporters of the plan say that Amendment 4 would end Florida’s “Boom-Bust” cycle because developers needed to quickly put together new projects to pay for previous developments. While that might be true, it’s seems that the cycle would be ended because any development would become so risky that the “boom” would never come, and those “booms” create jobs, something we sorely need in this state.

Now, I’m not an advocate of unfettered development. I’ve written often enough about how much I enjoy being able to see undeveloped areas of the state and experience the natural beauty of my adopted home that I completely get that we can’t just allow anybody to build anything anywhere. But we already have Hometown Democracy … it’s called a Representative Democracy.

The entire basis of our system is that we elect people to represent us in governing bodies at local, state, and national levels. We hope that the people we elect will represent our interest in things like comprehensive land use plans. I shudder to think that I could be required to be knowledgeable enough to vote on a land use change for a single lot on the west side of town, many miles from where I live at the beach. Even if it came to approving new commercial development, is there any way beach residents could be well enough informed to know how a new strip mall would affect westside neighborhoods? And if a project here at the beach required a change in the county land-use plan, could I count on folks in other parts of town to be well enough informed to vote on something that would not have any impact on them what so ever, particularly if it was the 20th or 50th or 100th item on a ballot covering all the proposed county land use changes. This is exactly why we, with elections, basically hire people to take care of those things for us. They ask for the job, and we evaluate their ability to do that job and either give it to them or not.

Now, I know that the inevitable cry of “politicians are in the pockets of developers” is coming. There is no perfect system. But as well intentioned as Amendment 4 might be, it would most likely create a system that is redundant, byzantine, and cumbersome, to the point that businesses looking to relocate would bypass the state because they would have to mount a massive campaign to convince enough voters to approve a land use change so they could build a factory or distribution center. The small businessperson, meanwhile, might have to wait until voters approved a land use plan change before he or she could move forward with a business expansion. And a residential project might take an additional year or more to get off the ground. Some would say that last is not necessarily a bad thing, likely until it’s their ox that’s being gored.

But at the end of the day, we’ve hired people we hope will make the right decisions. Somebody always thinks they know better, that “those corrupt politicians never met a development they didn’t like,” but few take the time to learn all the facts of a proposed development before expressing their opinion. To which they are truly entitled, I’d hasten to add. Rather than pass Amendment 4, those efforts would be better focused on electing people who are willing to take the time to evaluate plans, listen to all sides of an argument, and make an informed decision based on facts.

That’s what hometown democracy is really all about.