TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday approved changes to Florida growth laws that supporters say will strengthen the economy and that opponents predict will increase urban sprawl and traffic gridlock.
The bill rewrites Florida's 25-year-old growth management law, principally by allowing developers in the most urban counties to add more housing developments without expanding roads and by allowing counties and cities to designate new urban areas that also would be exempt from certain road-building requirements.
Sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican and an electrical contractor, the bill passed both houses of the Legislature by wide margins.
Business groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Association of Realtors hailed Crist's decision. The chamber said the legislation "updates Florida's growth laws without compromising environmental or land-use protections."
In signing the bill (SB 360), Crist, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, acknowledged the divisions it has caused. He has noted that his growth management expert, Tom Pelham, who runs the state Department of Community Affairs, had misgivings about the bill.
"I'm trying to be balanced on it and I know that it's probably one of those bills where nobody's going to be overly happy on either side of the argument," Crist told reporters a few hours before he acted. "So hopefully it's right down the middle, and we'll be able to stimulate our economy and not do harm to our beautiful state. That's my desire."
The new law is designed to make it easier to build new residential housing, even as Florida wallows in a glut of housing caused by the foreclosure crisis.
Crist signed the bill in private with no public ceremony. His press office issued a terse news release that attributed no quotations to Crist endorsing the legislation. The statement said the bill encourages entrepreneurs to develop in designated areas; requires a study of a "mobility fee" to pay for road and transit improvements; and extends for two years development permits that were in danger of expiring.
"We're pretty disappointed with this outcome," said Charles Pattison of 1000 Friends of Florida, a leading environmental organization. "We think this is going to lead to (development) approvals that won't lead to any immediate job creation, and you're going to have more sprawl."
All major environmental groups opposed the bill and mobilized their members to flood Crist's office with phone calls and e-mails urging a veto. Also fighting the bill were eight counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Collier, Lee, Lake and Wakulla.
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (950)224-7263.