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Hometown Democracy has its limits, but so does sprawl

How do we fix growth management in Florida? How do we get past the sorry predictability of elected officials tossing aside comprehensive plans for just about every developer who asks?

Let the people decide, of course.

That's what will happen if Amendment 4 passes in November: A vote of the people will be required to change local comp plans.

Brilliant, simple, an idea worth of its name: Hometown Democracy. That's what I thought when I first heard about it nearly six years ago (yes, it's been that long).

Then I look at 17 proposed comp plan changes headed for the Brooksville City Council on June 7 and I wonder.

Not all of these proposed changes are big and not all are strictly designed to beat the Hometown deadline. But some are, said Cliff Manuel, of Coastal Engineering Associates, including one from his client, Derrill McAteer, which would give him permission to build 450 houses on 450 acres of woods and pasture north of Powell Road.

Seventeen comp plan changes in a city that, some years, has none. In the county, developers of the massive Quarry Preserve are rushing to get approval for their city-in-a-mining-pit. All the similar requests from around the state are flooding the Florida Department of Community Affairs.

This, clearly, is no way to handle growth management. And yet it happened because of Hometown, which makes you wonder what else will happen that wasn't supposed to and whether, added together, all these happenings make this not such a brilliant idea after all.

People such as Manuel say that, of course. But so does Charles Pattison off 1000 Friends of Florida, a responsible-growth advocacy group. So does the editorial board of the Times and a solid majority of academic planners, said Tim Chapin, a Florida State University professor of urban and regional planning.

For one thing, land-use changes will be "popularity contests" that well-financed developers have a much better chance of winning than activists, Chapin said. In Hernando, we've seen it already. Most neighbors originally opposed Hickory Hill, the development planned for a 2,800-acre ranch in Spring Lake. After a few mailings of slick brochures and catered meals for residents, and many development-sponsored get-togethers, opinion was pretty much evenly divided.

We've also seen in recent years that our state Legislature knows how to undermine growth-management laws. When developers know voters rather than the putty-spined elected officials will have final say on their projects — a prospect that terrifies them — will they get their Tallahassee friends to blow apart planning rules altogether? Some well-informed people certainly think so.

Expensive, drawn-out lawsuits are also a possibility. This happened in St. Pete Beach, a city that adopted, sort of, a local version of Hometown.

People in the most-populated counties are the ones most fed up with clogged roads and crime that are commonly if unfairly thought of as an inescapable part of city living. They might vote against "good development,'' the kind that puts more people in a smaller area, uses existing water lines and such, and keeps development from chewing up land in rural counties — where, on the other hand, voters tend to say yes to anything that looks like economic development. In other words, Hometown could promote sprawl rather than slow it down.

Finally, take another look at Brooksville's proposed plan changes this year. Several are small, less than 10 acres, and amount to little more than bureaucratic cleanup of the comp plan. Yet post-Hometown, they would go to a public vote. Can you blame the city for its rush?

But also consider this:

Does anyone think voters in rural counties handle planning issues less responsibly than all the current and former elected officials indicted on bribery charges last year in Dixie and Levy counties?

St. Pete Beach is really a battle of dueling petitions and doesn't have much to do with Hometown.

Tom Pelham, DCA secretary, hasn't come out for or against the amendment, but he did say that most comp plans have plenty of land set aside for development already. Once the current wave of deadline-beating amendment request passes, there probably won't be many for a while. So, just maybe, this isn't the world-changing amendment it's often portrayed to be.

Finally, we come to the current state of growth management in Florida. It's not totally broken. The review of comp plan changes makes projects such as Hickory Hill better, makes everybody look at the burden it will have on roads, schools and the environment.

But just granting the right for Hickory Hill to be built made a joke of our comp plan. The approval of Quarry Preserve, which seems likely, would be an even uglier joke, one that shows commissioners don't care about slowing down sprawl.

Maybe, at least, voting for Hometown Democracy will show that we do.

Hometown Democracy has its limits, but so does sprawl 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 11:38am]
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