POLL Hometown Democracy debate: Would land-use votes create economic havoc?
By JENNA BUZZACCO-FOERSTER, TARA E. McLAUGHLIN
Saturday, October 23, 2010
NAPLES — Signs popped up in yards across Collier and Lee counties a few weeks ago.
Some urge passers-by to vote no, while others plead for support, saying Florida voters deserve a say.
It’s a simple slogan, but interpretations of Amendment 4, also called the Hometown Democracy amendment, have foreshadowed a complex debate over how local governments plan for growth.
“I think people are very suspicious,” said Andrew Dickman, a Collier County environmental attorney and Hometown Democracy supporter. “They feel that the odds are stacked against the little guy … (and) I think this will require local governments to think long and hard about whether they want to approve things.”
Cities and counties map out their plans for future growth in a document called a comprehensive plan. Governments are required to update it every seven years, and also may amend the document twice a year.
Amendment 4 would require a vote before changes are made, though it’s unclear which changes would be subject to a vote.
“It’s not for sewer lines and left-hand turn lights,” said Wayne Garcia, communications director for the amendment advocacy group Florida Hometown Democracy.
The amendment’s supporters say only large-scale projects, such as changing residential property to commercial, would go to a referendum. But opponents disagree.
“It’s so vague, so broadly worded, that it would invite endless litigation,” said Ryan Houck, executive director of the opposing political group Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy.
Lawsuits would stem from people who have lost projects because of an Amendment 4-based decision, or groups who think a decision didn’t comply with the letter of the law, said Peter Bergerson, a public affairs professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero.
“The issue is not going to be cut and dried,” Bergerson said.
That’s been the case in St. Pete Beach, the Tampa Bay-area community that opponents often point to as an example of how something like Amendment 4 can turn sour.
In 2006, citizens initiated a law similar to Amendment 4, allowing voters to approve or reject comprehensive plan changes.
Two years later, voters approved a comprehensive plan amendment that allowed for taller resorts along the community’s beach.
Project opponents, who were the original supporters of referendums for comprehensive plan changes, filed several lawsuits challenging aspects such as the ballot language.
The city has paid more than $700,000 defending itself and at least one developer has postponed plans to expand until the issue is resolved, St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said.
“It sounds good to have that responsibility,” Bonfield said. “But when it comes down to really trying to understand what you’re voting on, people have to come to realize they elect people to make those decisions.”
Bob Lee, executive director of the Center for Florida Local Government Excellence at Florida State University in Tallahassee, said passage of Amendment 4 would likely lead to a “politicized planning process.”
“It would now involve a political campaign and expensive litigation as to whether this really even requires a land-use amendment,” Lee said. “The idea of trying to properly plan our communities is a good one, (but) the issue here is how to do that.”
Many local governments across the state have opposed Amendment 4 for precisely that reason, saying it would complicate the already laborious planning process.
Currently, comprehensive plan changes are reviewed by planning advisory boards, a local governmental body and presented during at least one public hearing before going to the state’s Department of Community Affairs for review. That’s followed by possibly more hearings before final approval.
Amendment 4 would boil that months-long process into a 75-word ballot item on which residents would vote.
“It’s like coming into the last episode of ‘Lost’ and saying: ‘OK, what would you think of that? Yes or No,’” Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson said. “It’s impossible.”
Cities and counties submit about 9,000 amendments each year. In 2009, that number jumped to about 15,000 mainly to get ahead of Amendment 4, said James Miller, a community affairs department spokesman.
Cape Coral submitted 25 amendments to its comprehensive plan in the past eight months. The community is only about 40 percent built out and Cape Coral’s Assistant City Manager Carl Schwing said the community is trying to shift away from a bedroom community to a place where residents can live, work and play.
The city pushed through comprehensive plan changes because it didn’t want to wait to see what would happen with Amendment 4.
“God knows how expensive that would be,” he said. “How difficult the process (would be) and whether or not developers would want to come to Cape Coral.”
Future growth is what concerns many opponents of Amendment 4.
“I don’t know if (they) realized this, but we have a severe economic crisis going on in Florida and hindering things like a variance for someone who wants to build a guest house,” won’t help, Naples City Councilman Sam Saad said. “That’s construction jobs and money not being put into the economy because we’re waiting for a vote.”
But supporters say Florida’s growth is what caused the economic crisis, and there’s no better time than now to change the way growth is managed.
“We are the taxpayers. We’re paying the money to do all of these projects, and nobody listens to us,” said Faye Biles, president of the Marco Island Taxpayers’ Association. “Give the people the opportunity to vote on those changes.”
Growing counties, such as Lee, submit about 70 comprehensive plan amendments each year.
Mary Gibbs, director of Lee County’s community development department, said the amendment will stymie some growth but not all.
Developments that don’t need a comprehensive plan change will continue to follow the traditional track of public hearings and local government review. That means items such as a routine request to rezone a property would be processed without a citizens’ vote, she said.
While not one elected official in Collier and Lee counties interviewed for this report said they support the amendment, at least one group that had been opposed to the amendment has changed its opinion.
1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit organization whose mission statement is to protect land, fight sprawl and build better communities, recently said it is neutral.
“I think we generally recognize for Amendment 4, whether people agree or disagree, it is a general cry for help from the public,” said Charles Pattison, the group’s president. “I think there are legitimate issues being raised by proponents and valid concerns being raised by opponents, yet business as usual cannot be the end result.”