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Florida's growth management boss fends off developers' criticism

TAMPA — All summer, Tom Pelham has been Public Enemy No. 1 for developers unhappy with his interpretation of a law passed this year designed to ease regulation of growth.

He has said it did not eliminate local rules requiring that builders pay for road improvements.

On Tuesday, Pelham, Florida's secretary of the Department of Community Affairs and Gov. Charlie Crist's top growth-management expert, confronted his critics in a workshop at the Quorum Hotel.

Early on, land-use attorney Ron Weaver set the mood by describing how developers felt when Pelham issued his opinion two weeks after the law passed.

"It was like being married to a nymphomaniac," Weaver said. "The first two weeks were great. Then all hell broke loose."

Pelham indeed deflated the celebratory mood among Tallahassee lobbyists and business groups.

In June, he said that local growth-management rules remained in effect, despite the new law that eliminated state mandates. And he held that developers still had to pay transportation costs associated with their projects.

Since then, he hasn't backed down. He's hosted a series of Web telecasts and visited cities to face down crowds like the one Tuesday that brimmed with more than 200 people, including a who's who of developers, lawyers and regional politicos.

"I've been a lawyer for a long time," Pelham joked. "I'm used to being shot at."

For two hours, Pelham held steady, telling the crowd that the law clearly states that local governments had the power to require developers to pay for roads. If they decide they no longer want to, as Orange County did recently, then it's up to them to eliminate the rules.

Weaver said Pelham was wrong, that lawmakers intended to strike down such rules in urban counties. He said the courts or lawmakers will ultimately overrule Pelham.

There's much confusion about the law, which was intended to ease development rules as a tool to revive economic growth. Critics say it encourages sprawl and the construction of homes that nobody wants.

Already, a group of cities has sued Crist and lawmakers, claiming the law illegally shifts road-building costs to taxpayers.

So there is still some uncertainty about the law's scope.

For instance, it requires governments to adopt "mobility fees" to pay for development, but does not define them, say how they would be assessed, who would pay, or how much they would finance.

The Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida is conducting a $50,000 study that will give lawmakers mobility fee options. But even USF officials familiar with the study said they don't know what those options will be yet.

Despite such unknowns, Pelham impressed a roomful of skeptics. At the end of the workshop, Weaver slapped him on the back and told him: "I love the way you came back on me. That was well done, well done."

Florida's growth management boss fends off developers' criticism 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 11:31pm]

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