TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott promises as governor to loosen regulation of business and he would start by putting a bull's-eye on the state agency loathed by many developers.
It's the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which reviews development projects with a staff of about 220 and a budget of $280 million.
The DCA was designed to bring a regional perspective to major growth decisions that affect the lives of people outside the jurisdiction of the local government that is considering the project.
To Scott, it's a clear-cut case of too much red tape.
"On the campaign trail, I'll tell you the one that everybody's fed up with. It's DCA," Scott says. "It's really impacted people that want to build things. Their attitude is, 'How can somebody in Tallahassee tell my local community what we want, and DCA sits there and tells us we can't do it?' … I'll tell you, it's really killing jobs."
Created in 1969, the DCA is one of the smallest state agencies under the governor's control. Most of its budget is federal funds, and it serves two basic functions: to review growth management decisions by cities and counties and distribute federal grants for housing, neighborhood revitalization and foreclosure assistance programs.
The next governor will be forced to slash costs to cover an estimated $2.5 billion shortfall, but wiping out the DCA won't help much. That's because about 10 cents of every dollar it spends comes from state taxes.
DCA Secretary Tom Pelham says the agency is needed to mediate growth disputes involving adjoining cities and counties, and to review large-scale development projects for their regional impacts on roads, utilities and other services.
"I think it would be disastrous for the state if DCA were abolished," says Pelham, who has been closely involved in growth issues for four decades. "Most growth management issues today affect more than one local government."
Pelham said that whenever economic times are bad in Florida, "the tendency is to point the finger at whatever planning or regulatory system exists," even though that same system exists when times are good.
He cited as an example of the DCA's value its recent review of four major development projects in the city of Wildwood, near the juncture of I-75 and Florida's Turnpike. The projects overwhelmed the small city's part-time planner, who also serves as building inspector, Pelham said.
Targeting the DCA for elimination is not a new idea in Tallahassee. Measures to dismantle the DCA have been filed several times in recent years, but the agency always manages to survive.
This spring, after a "sunset" review, the Senate voted to let the DCA survive but the House did nothing, leaving the agency in a state of bureaucratic limbo.
Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the incoming House speaker, says he wouldn't mind seeing the DCA disappear, with its functions distributed to other agencies.
"Too often, DCA has been an obstacle to people who want to build responsible, quality developments, and that's not good for Florida," Cannon said.
He said the DCA too often second-guesses development decisions by cities and counties.
Growth is much more of a political lightning rod than usual this year because of the presence on the ballot of Amendment 4, which, if approved, would subject most local land use decisions to referendums. Supporters of Amendment 4 say local officials can't be trusted to make responsible decisions on growth because of large campaign contributions by the development industry.
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, supports Scott, but defends the agency's need to referee growth management disputes.
"We need DCA," Bennett says. "We need to get it back to its mission of not hindering growth but facilitating it and try to referee among different jurisdictions."
Scott's opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, says there's room for improvement at the DCA but the agency is essential.
"I don't like this 'us-vs.-them' mentality that we see oftentimes in Tallahassee," Sink said. "We ought to have a Department of Community Affairs that's there to be a governor with a small 'g' on growth management policies in regions."
Charles Pattison of 1000 Friends of Florida, a leading environmental group, agreed that the state's growth management laws need a tuneup to give citizens a greater say in development decisions.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.