Think of it as the Gatekeeper. When a developer wants to fill in an Everglades marsh, or a condo builder wants to toss up a couple thousand units on a flood-prone beach, local officials may say yes — but the Florida Department of Community Affairs steps in to say, "Whoa." • Now, though, some legislators want to dismantle the state's land-planning agency. There are bills to take it apart and stick growth management in the same department that oversees the state's elections and historical archives. Meanwhile the House Budget Committee is recommending cutting in half the $6 million the state currently spends on overseeing growth. • Members contend that cutting back on growth management will save the taxpayers money, and that aiding developers will revive the economy. Critics point out that there are already 300,000 empty houses in the state, so making it easier to build more of them is likely to make things worse, not better. • The agency's top man, Secretary Tom Pelham, warns that lawmakers are out to "eviscerate" growth management — and without bothering to wonder what would be lost if his agency disappeared. • So how would Florida be different if the Department of Community Affairs didn't exist? What would have been approved if the Gatekeeper hadn't been there to say no? Here's a sample:
In 2006, county officials approved moving the Urban Development Boundary, which is supposed to halt sprawl from reaching the Everglades. Moving the line westward would accommodate several developers, including Gov. Jeb Bush's former business partner, Armando Codina, who wanted to build more than 5 million square feet of industrial and office space on 457 acres. The DCA said no, because the county couldn't say where those new projects would get a water supply.
County officials voted to allow 6,000 new residences on a narrow barrier island called Perdido Key, nearly doubling the number of people living in a place flattened by hurricanes in 2005 and 2006. DCA said no, pointing out that the county hadn't come up with money to widen the island's main road for hurricane evacuation, nor had it planned any expansion of the sewer system.
A St. Petersburg surgeon, Dr. J. Crayton Pruitt, proposed building a massive hotel-condo-marina complex with a channel dredged through a state aquatic preserve. County officials, to accommodate him, proposed making a series of small changes to their growth plan, which would mean it would avoid review by the DCA. The agency objected that this was bending the rules. Pruitt subsequently retooled his plans, dropping the marina and channel but adding a golf course — and the county will now review it all as a large-scale change in its growth plan.
Palm Beach County
Developers proposed buying a mobile-home park in Briny Breezes and building high-rise towers for 900 condominium units, plus a hotel, restaurants, shops and a marina. The DCA objected to cramming so much on to a small barrier island. Ultimately the developers dropped out.
Local officials tried to weaken protections for Lake Jackson to accommodate a residential development. The DCA said no, and a judge agreed. The county rescinded the change.
Local officials changed their land-use plan to make room for a 3,200-home development named Mariposa in a remote rural area miles from roads, sewer and water lines. The DCA objected to the change, and county officials backpedaled.
Bunnell annexed 10,500 acres and adopted a new land-use plan to allow more than 9,000 new homes built in what DCA found to be "a sprawling land use pattern." The agency objected and is working with local officials to find a way to cluster future development to better protect natural resources.
On 27,400 acres of pasture in a rural area known as Yeehaw Junction, a developer named Anthony Pugliese III wants to build a new town called Destiny that would plop down 100,000 homes in a previously undeveloped section of the state. "It pries open the interior of Florida like a can-opener," said Audubon of Florida's Charles Lee. Three years ago Pugliese's lobbyists tried unsuccessfully to persuade lawmakers for an exemption from permitting regulations "for properties of greater than 25,000 acres."
Edgewater city officials have approved changing their land plan to allow 8,600 homes, wiping out more than 500 acres of wetlands.
Wildwood city officials are seeking multiple land-use changes to authorize more than 86,000 new homes and 109-million square feet of nonresidential development.
Bartow city officials want to allow up to 11,000 new homes and 28 million square feet of commercial and industrial development on nearly 18,000 acres.
County officials want to change their land-use plan to allow a 65,000-acre ranch to be converted to 56,000 homes and 3.3 million square feet of commercial property.
Indian River County
Fellsmere city officials want to change their land-use plan to allow 42,000 new homes and 6-million square feet of commercial use on 21,000 acres they recently annexed.
North Port city officials want to amend their land-use plan to allow a developer to build 13,000 homes and 4.2 million square feet of commercial and industrial use on 5,000 acres that includes what DCA calls "major wetland systems and flood-prone areas."