Six weeks after he took office, Florida's new governor, Rick Scott, visited the state's Department of Community Affairs. Scott told the employees gathered in the lobby that they were doing a great job. Then he told them to stop.
Scott wants to gut the DCA. He contends the agency in charge of managing Florida's growth is a red-tape-crazy job-killer standing in the way of economic recovery. As an example, he cited a development in Collier County that needed "75 or 78 permits, just for the land."
Legislative leaders, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and home builders have chimed in to agree with Scott. They're pushing for a sweeping overhaul of the state's 1985 growth management law.
There are proposals to get rid of regional planning councils, eliminate requiring developers to show the need for new subdivisions and make it nearly impossible for anyone to sue to stop an unpopular project. The pro-growth-management group 1,000 Friends of Florida is predicting this session of the Legislature will be the "worst in Florida's growth management history.''
What's underlying this push, say experts, is a desire to go even further. It's a rejection of anything that might stand in the way of restarting Florida's growth machine — even local comprehensive plans, said Merle Bishop, president of the Florida chapter of the American Planning Association.
"I'm just afraid the whole attitude and the whole movement right now is antiplanning across the board," said Bishop, a senior planner with Kimley-Horn and Associates.
The problem, planning experts say, is that the antiplanning push is based on a faulty premise — just like Scott's anti-DCA anecdote about how many permits it took to build that Collier County development.
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The project Scott referred to wasn't the standard 25-home subdivision with a postage-stamp retention pond seen all over Florida.
He was talking about Ave Maria, a new town built on 5,000 acres of farmland, forest and swamps 9 miles from the edge of Naples that had been habitat for the endangered Florida panther and other imperiled species.
Ave Maria, built around the campus for a Catholic university of the same name, resulted from a collaboration between Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan and the landowner, Barron Collier Co. Applications for the first permits were filed in 2003. The first residents moved in four years later.
Blake Gable, Barron Collier's chief executive, said he had complained to Scott not so much about the number of permits required as what he viewed as the redundancy among local, state and federal agencies.
"Clearly there are some significant inefficiencies," he said.
Gable said he gave Scott a document that showed his company had to get "about 60" permits to build Ave Maria. But a review of the document shows that the number is not 78, 75 or 60.
It's 81 — and not one of them was issued by the DCA.
The county itself required the most, 28, primarily because each individual subdivision within the town needed separate permits. Ave Maria's own utility company, owned by the developer, required 18 for the same reason.
Three were from a federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees federal wetlands protection. The remaining 32 were required by state agencies: the state Department of Environmental Protection, which permitted the town's built-from-scratch water, sewage and stormwater runoff systems; the South Florida Water Management District, which needed permits for pumping groundwater and flood zone impact; and the state wildlife commission, which let the developer remove nests of burrowing owls and another bird, the caracara.
"How obnoxious is that?" Gable asked of the two wildlife permits. "That tells me that's too many."
But here's the catch: Ave Maria might never have been built if it weren't for the state's growth planning agency, said Jim Beever of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.
In 1997 — six years before Scott moved to Naples — the DCA declared that Collier County's growth plan lacked sufficient protection from sprawl in the rural areas.
State officials (including Beever) collaborated with major landowners — including Barron Collier — to map out a better plan. They created an elaborate system that credits landowners for setting aside land for protection while clustering development in small areas.
The first landowner to use the new system: Barron Collier, in building Ave Maria.
Under the old county-approved plan, that property could have held only 1,000 homes. Under the new one approved by the DCA, Ave Maria can build 11,000 homes and condominium units, 690,000 square feet of retail space, 400 hotel rooms, 35,000 square feet of medical facilities, parks and public schools.
Yet, when Scott was on the campaign trail, he said the DCA shouldn't interfere with local governments. Everyone, he said, was telling him, "How can somebody in Tallahassee tell my local community what we want, and DCA sits there and tells us we can't do it?"
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When Scott talked to the DCA employees, he told them he's looking forward to all but abolishing their agency. He wants to cut the DCA's 358 employees to 40, slash the budget from $779 million a year to just $110 million and combine it with the DEP.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos likes the idea of streamlining agencies so the state can spend the money "on things like education or give some incentives to attract businesses to the state of Florida."
House Speaker Dean Cannon said the goal should be to speed up development approvals, period, explaining: "They approve 95 percent of the things that come to them, but they take 13 months to do it."
That's because "the Legislature continually increased the workload while reducing staff," said Tom Pelham, who ran the DCA from 2006 to 2010. "Even with the current staff the department is severely overtaxed."
Still, in the past four years, the DCA approved local plan amendments covering 950,000 acres of land, enough for 600,000 new homes, and 1.5 billion square feet of commercial projects, he said. That's far more approved development than can possibly be built for years.
The system Scott is pushing, with DCA serving only an advisory role, is one Florida tried before, said Charles Connerly, co-editor of the book Growth Management in Florida: Planning for Paradise.
From 1975 to 1985, he said, local governments drew up their own plans and the state had no say in them. But many local governments didn't take growth management seriously — they didn't adopt plans, or they just ignored them.
"It was a sham," said Connerly, an urban planning professor formerly with Florida State.
That led to congested roads, crowded schools, overloaded sewers and other signs that Florida was overwhelmed by runaway growth. In 1985, lawmakers passed the growth management act that gave the state the power to reject local plans. Business interests went along with it, Connerly said.
"They saw that it was good for Florida," he said. "What makes Florida special is the environment. If you don't protect the environment, why would anyone go there?"
Times staff writers Janet Zink and David DeCamp and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.