The Florida Department of Community Affairs is good at telling developers how their plans to build subdivisions out in the country — think of Hickory Hill and the Quarry Preserve — can cause sprawl, clog roads and destroy the environment. But it hardly ever says no.
This frustrates a lot of citizen activists, who think that the agency does nothing but push papers.
And they are dead wrong.
Look closely and you'll find that once DCA gets involved, plans change for the better. Developers agree to pay more for roads and schools, add protection for wildlife habitat and groundwater, rewrite plans to make sure projects that are supposed to function like real cities are designed like real cities.
That was true to some degree even under its weakest leadership. It's even more true under current DCA secretary Tom Pelham.
Yes, it would be nice if the DCA flat turned down a few more requests for changes to local comprehensive plans, though this does happen once in a while.
But anyone who knows much about development in this state knows that without the DCA, it would be even more of a chaotic free-for-all.
And maybe because the state Legislature tried to do so much crazy, irresponsible stuff this year — forcing most women seeking abortions to pay and review ultrasounds of their fetuses, stripping tenure from teachers, allowing leading lawmakers to take in even more special interest money (all of which, by the way, received the votes of our own state Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill) — we've overlooked an equally wild attack on the DCA.
In the final days of the session, the House of Representatives failed to hear a routine bill to reauthorize the agency.
Legally, this might not mean much. Politically, it's a killer — a vote of no-confidence that is extra significant because it is widely believed to be the work of incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. (He previously has said he had nothing to do with the lack of reauthorization, and a representative from his office said Thursday this would have no impact.)
Next year, members will have been freshly re-elected and the Hometown Democracy amendment, the threat of which has supposedly forced lawmakers to at least pretend they care about controlling growth, will have been resolved one way or another.
So, expect the Legislature to throw everything it has at the DCA, said spokesman James Miller.
It may eliminate the agency. More likely it will retain the DCA in some form — just make sure it can't do its job. (And these are folks who supposedly hate government waste.)
That might include further cuts to a staff that is already overwhelmed by proposed comp plan changes, such as the one for the Quarry, designed to beat the deadline of the Hometown vote. Or lawmakers might pass obscure measures preventing the DCA from enforcing rules, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.
As this battle moves forward, remember that Cannon is the guy who told us it was safe for oil companies to drill as close as 3 miles from Florida's shore.
The DCA, on the other hand, recently put out a 44-page critique of the Quarry, requiring upgrades of everything from transportation plans to habitat protection.
So, who do you think is really looking out for us?