Sometimes, when I talk to Gary Schraut, I wonder if there's some sort of reality-bending tint on the windows of his SUV.
Because this is what he sees when he drives past those partly built subdivisions with their foreclosed houses and residential streets tailing off into piles of sand and construction debris:
Way too many restrictions on growth.
That's right. Schraut, a Brooksville Realtor and in many other respects a sensible guy, thinks the state's growth management laws were a big reason for the real estate bust.
The added costs drove home prices out of the range of most buyers. The protracted approval process meant that "by the time the (lots and houses) got to the market, the demand was gone," said Schraut, who used this situation to explain away the fact that Hernando County is already home to 60,000 approved-but-unbuilt residential lots.
"The biggest problem Florida has is that its laws have been hijacked by the no-growth crowd. … I think the pendulum went way too far in their direction."
That is why, as chairman of both the Florida Association of Realtors political action committee and the Council for Stronger Neighborhoods, a fundraising organization that spent more than $600,000 last election season to support pro-growth candidates, he lobbied hard for Senate Bill 360.
Sorry, not lobby. He says he was just acting as an interested Realtor when he talked to lawmakers, including the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.
If you don't recognize the bill number, it's the one that earned Gov. Charlie Crist, who signed it into law, the nickname "Gridlock Charlie," and that every major environmental group in the state has railed against for gutting growth management laws in areas loosely defined as urban — eastern Hillsborough County, for example.
The new law, granted, is not quite loose enough to include Hernando County. By reducing the costs and restrictions on building in big counties, it may even mean less interest in projects in outlying ones such as ours. The only benefit (maybe; planning experts haven't sorted it all out yet) to the local housing industry is an extension on development orders and environmental and building permits.
It didn't even seem worth writing about until last week, when Schraut told me about his role. Also, on Monday, the state approved for next year's ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would give voters the right to approve changes to city or county comprehensive plans.
I've always kind of rooted for Hometown Democracy, the underdog bunch behind this idea. But even I know it's far from ideal; all these referendums would be cumbersome and expensive.
The alternative, however, seems to be even more of the same stuff that has fouled the state's economy and environment: too much growth in too many places it doesn't belong; too few contributions to ensure adequate roads and schools.
I think a lot of people have come to this conclusion. And, as my colleague Howard Troxler has already written, Hometown's drive to collect nearly 700,000 signatures to put its petition on the ballot got a boost from the hardheadedness of people like Schraut.
So, the pendulum is already swinging back. Which serves them right.