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Develop, bulldoze, fill, pave; repeat

It's not Wall Street greed or the housing bubble. It's not our regressive tax structure, the big breaks we gave to the rich in the 1990s, or the way we bet our futures on other people's Magic Kingdom fantasies. No, Florida's economic crisis is the fault of Florida's environmental protections: the tree-huggers and critter-coddlers are putting us in the poorhouse.

At least, that's what Florida's Legislature seems to think.

Your elected representatives are taking advantage of the recession to roll back 25 years of clean water regulations, habitat protections and intelligent growth management. They mean to push through dozens of bills that stink of the "build here, build now" mentality that has wrecked so much of Florida's natural beauty.

There are bills to make it easy to sprawl and harder for local governments to protect wildlife and natural areas, bills to "streamline" building permits, and bills that would weaken the conservation powers of water management districts. Many bills are overstuffed goodie baskets for builders. Senate Bill 2026 is full of permit extensions and rule relaxations to gladden a contractor's heart. Perversely, it also contains an amendment that protects Florida's springs and forces new homes to have eco-friendly sewage systems. Maybe two steps forward and three steps back is the best we can hope for.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, want to abolish the state's growth management agency, the Department of Community Affairs. DCA put the kibosh on such godawful proposals as 13,000 houses and 4 million square feet of commercial space on 5,000 flood-prone acres of wetland ecosystem in Sarasota County, a subdivision that would pollute Leon County's Lake Jackson, a state aquatic preserve, and a "resort" with a huge marina and a yacht channel dug through the sea grasses that act as marine life nurseries in Taylor County.

It may not be entirely irrelevant that Bennett is a contractor and Dorworth a real estate broker.

Florida Forever is often described as "one of the best conservation programs in the world." Yet it's currently top of the state's endangered environmental programs list, even though more than 80 percent of Floridians say they support it. Last Wednesday, a couple of senators hatched a plan to fund it by closing a tax loophole that lets corporations avoid real estate taxes. "With prices so low now, we get a lot of bang for our buck," says Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation and a supporter. But as of this writing, the House budget allocates no money to Florida Forever.

Many legislators and more developers would prefer to see concrete on those wild lands. They argue that freeing up building permits will create jobs — quit worrying about wetlands and start putting up drywall. "The theme of these bills is 'get regulation off our backs,' " says Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida. "That mentality believes that all growth — no matter where it occurs — is good."

Indeed, developers are tanned, rested and ready: They want to build more than 600,000 new houses. They want to raise whole new towns, including one called "Destiny," a new city of 100,000 on a vast chunk of Osceola County pasture. Edie Ousley, communications director for the Florida Home Builders Association, says, "The housing industry has always been the one to help Florida out of a recession."

But more than 300,000 houses around the state stand empty. That's not counting foreclosures. Beginning with the 1920s land boom, Florida got bigger and richer marketing itself as a low-tax paradise within slicing distance of a golf course. In 2006, nearly 1,000 people a day were moving here. No longer. Population growth is not projected to break 1 percent for another five years. Dr. Hank Fishkind, an economist, believes that Florida will recover, especially if impact fees are lowered or suspended, but that "at this point, building single-family homes in exurbs and overbuilt counties such as Lee would not be helpful."

In the last week, Realtors reported that sales of new houses increased slightly. Still, Fishkind explains: "This recession has scrambled a lot of nest eggs. A lot of wealth was lost." People will have to work longer. They will have to sell their houses in New Jersey or Michigan before they can afford one in Naples or Fort Lauderdale. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Arizona are now competing with Florida as retirement destinations. He says, "The tsunami of retirees is not going to happen."

So who is going to live in all these houses? Florida can't count on aging baby boomers to rescue our economy. We can't count on young families to move here, either, given that insurance rates in Florida are crazy-high and school funding is criminally low.

If we dismantle our environmental safeguards there may be an explosion of construction jobs, but hardly the kind of 21st-century information and tech-based careers we should be fostering. And where will we get the water they need? South Florida is already under severe stress. David Guest, managing attorney with Earthjustice, says the aquifer can't support endless new building: "It's like selling a fleet of 600,000 cars in a state with no gas stations."

A cynical person might think the Legislature's passion for development has something to do with developers' campaign contributions. Or maybe it's the well-lubricated job opportunities post-term limits: Former state Rep. Randy Johnson is now shilling for the Destiny project. No matter that most Americans look with horror on the way lax regulation and licensed venality have brought us to the brink of financial ruin, Florida's lawmakers see nothing wrong with wildcat development. There's a near-religious faith that Florida can turn the clock back to the fat years. Edie Ousley insists, "Florida is always going to be an excellent place to live and work. We have so many amenities, like natural resources and great health care."

That's debatable. Especially if we kill the goose that lays the green egg. "The environment, the beauty of the place, is why people come here in the first place," says Manley Fuller.

Part of the Legislature's hostility to limiting growth and safeguarding the ecosystem is ideological. Lawmakers point to a report produced by the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee think tank of laissez-faire fetishists and Ayn Randistas. The report's author, FSU economist Randall G. Holcombe, has said that government is "unnecessary but inevitable" and regulating growth in Florida somehow abridges citizens' rights. His "Creating a Public/Private Partnership for Florida's Conservation Lands Management" claims private firms could save the state money. Conservation experts and environmentalists are skeptical. "The 'free market solves everything' approach brought us the recent financial meltdown," says Guest. "This ideology is currently in profound disrepute."

Moreover, Guest points out, Gov. Jeb Bush (professor Holcombe was a member of his Council of Economic Advisers) famously tried privatizing various state functions such as compiling electoral rolls. The result was tens of thousands of voters disenfranchised in the 2000 presidential election.

Still, Florida's legislators rarely let logic or the public good get in the way of smackdown capitalism. It's as if they long for the good old days when Henry Flagler built what he wanted where he wanted, when paving Florida was an honorable profession. Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, sponsor of a bill to make destroying wetlands much easier, says he wants to "create some respect" for developers.

Developers are terribly sensitive, you know.

Diane Roberts, a former member of the Times editorial board, is professor of English at Florida State University.

Develop, bulldoze, fill, pave; repeat 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]
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