TALLAHASSEE — One subject that roiled last year's legislative session is largely absent from lawmakers' vocabulary this year: growth management.
The reason, according to Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham, is that everyone is scared of the subject. Legislators and lobbyists fear voter anger, or they fear a growth-related constitutional amendment, or they fear stirring up a fuss before a new governor takes over in January.
But next year's session? That's when it will all come storming back, Pelham says.
Last year, lawmakers, contending that the state's slumping economy would be aided by streamlining the development process, took aim at the rules set up by the 1985 Growth Management Act.
There was talk of abolishing Pelham's agency. When he visited the Capitol to talk to lawmakers, he was seldom warmly greeted.
The biggest uproar last year was over Senate Bill 360. The bill, which Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law, allows developers in the most urban counties to proceed with their projects without paying to expand roads that would be affected. It also lets cities and counties designate new urban areas that would be exempt from road-building requirements.
Business groups such as the Florida Board of Realtors backed the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, an electrical contractor. But it was bitterly opposed by environmental groups and some county and city governments, who contended it would produce more sprawl and gridlock without creating new jobs.
A number of local governments subsequently filed a lawsuit arguing the bill violated the state Constitution. The lawsuit — combined with the lack of demand for new housing — has left the effect of the legislation unclear for now, said Eric Poole, the legislative director for the Florida Association of Counties.
The only bill expected to win approval relating to growth management is aimed at fixing a potential glitch in SB 360.
Pelham's department is also facing its mandatory sunset review, which requires it to justify to the Legislature why it should continue to exist. But some lawmakers say they want to defer that decision until 2011, along with other ideas for eliminating development rules.
The only real question is whether they will follow Gov. Charlie Crist's recommendation to maintain the department's current funding.
Pelham said it's nothing he's done. It's the timing.
"You've got a lot of people in the Legislature who are now running for statewide office," Pelham explained. A lot of them "got beat up" by the voters back home over their support for SB 360 last year, he said. As a result, they're worried that a renewed controversy over growth management would hurt their election chances.
"Everybody knows, you just mention growth management and you're looking for a fight," agreed Charles Pattison of the pro-planning group 1,000 Friends of Florida.
So they don't even bring it up. "Growth management always lends itself to trying to tweak it to make it better," said state Rep. Dorothy Hukill, a Republican from Port Orange. "This year we are conscientiously taking our hands off. It's recognition we are only a few months from an election."
Bennett said he believes last year's growth legislation will help curb urban sprawl and address transportation needs. It just needs an opportunity to work. "We need the economy to rebound so we have some growth to manage," he said.
Ahead of the session, Bennett, chairman of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, planned a number of sweeping growth management proposals, most aimed at Pelham. He wanted to significantly curtail the scope of the agency because its review of developments "costs millions and millions of dollars and too much paperwork," Bennett said. "That's the problem with bureaucracies. … I think we need to change that."
But this month Bennett cut those potentially controversial provisions. He said he wasn't worried about his own re-election, but rather the upcoming vote this fall on Amendment 4.
The proposed constitutional amendment, also known as Florida Hometown Democracy, would put decisions about changes to growth plans in the hands of the voters rather than leaving them to local governments. Bennett said lawmakers don't want to give supporters of the amendment any ammunition, so they're holding off taking any action this year.
Lesley Blackner, president of the Florida Hometown Democracy organization, said she's not surprised that lawmakers are worried about it passing. "The people who run Florida, all they care about is endless growth," said Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer. "Land use is politics. Whoever controls the politics controls the land use."
Pelham said that's not all that's at work, though. Some lawmakers fear that if they badmouth the amendment, it could hurt their own election chances with voters unhappy with how growth is currently managed in Florida.
"I think most of (the legislators) don't want to be seen as opposing Hometown Democracy even though they may not like it," Pelham said.
What happens next year will depend on whether Amendment 4 gets 60 percent of the vote, as the law now requires for passage, said Gary Hunter, a lobbyist for the Association of Florida Community Developers. But if Amendment 4 fails, look for Bennett's proposed changes to come back in the next session accompanied by a lot of other bills aimed at loosening the rules on growth.
Further fueling the likelihood of a push for changes is the fact that, in January, a new governor will succeed Crist. It's likely that new governor will also replace Pelham as head of community affairs. Pelham said he knows of at least two big developers who are sitting on major project plans until then.