Agency that controls Florida growth could lose popular grant program

TALLAHASSEE — Secretary Tom Pelham's agency has to be the "police force of growth," he says.

The Department of Communities Affairs (DCA) is tasked with making sure cities and counties stick to their long-term growth plans, which sometimes means killing or stalling building projects.

The agency mostly works with a big stick. But, for nearly 20 years, it's also had a carrot.

It's called the Florida Communities Trust, a nationally recognized feel-good program that doles out grants to cities and counties to buy parks, especially if it helps the municipality meet its growth-management plans.

Now the Florida Legislature wants to take DCA's carrot away.

At first, it was just the House. But on Thursday, the Senate quietly joined the effort, after a surprising committee vote, to move DCA's beloved Florida Communities Trust program to the much bigger Department of Environmental Protection.

To an outsider, moving a land-buying program from one agency to another looks like a bureaucratic tug-of-war. But environmentalists and growth managers are wondering if the Legislature's move isn't the first step in a long-term goal of gutting the agency that regulates Florida's growth.

"I think we're seeing a peeling-away of programs so that next year people say: 'Yeah, why do we need them?' " said Charles Pattison, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Florida.

The Legislature's switch is attached to an important bill (SB 542) that breathes new life into Florida Forever, the state's high-profile, multimillion-dollar conservation program, which expires in 2010. The Florida Forever extension is a priority for the governor and Senate president and is scheduled for Senate floor discussion this week.

Florida Communities Trust, which helped expand Pinellas County's Brooker Creek Reserve in the early 1990s, gets its $66-million each year from Florida Forever. So the two programs are related.

But Pelham argues that the programs "are totally different."

DEP runs most of the rest of Florida Forever program, buying and managing land for the state. DCA's Florida Communities Trust doesn't buy or manage land; it gives money to local governments to do that.

"I honestly cannot see the logic or rationale of moving this program," an exasperated Pelham said as he pleaded to keep the Florida Communities Trust before the House Environment & Natural Resources Council on Friday.

Facing the state's worst budget in decades, lawmakers have talked about eliminating agencies altogether. In this case, they say they're "creating efficiencies." They say they don't want to hurt the Florida Communities Trust, but they want to consolidate the program along with other land-buying programs aimed at making Florida greener.

"This idea came out of our project on land management over the summer," said Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who runs the House committee Pelham spoke at Friday. "It's just simply a realignment of these programs."

But environmentalists say that the Legislature is trying to "stick it to" Pelham on behalf of developers because he's turned down a few high-profile development projects, including a massive hotel and condominium resort a St. Petersburg surgeon wanted to build in rural Taylor County.

Pelham has also talked publicly about toughening growth management laws to help fend off complaints from those so fed up they embrace the Florida Hometown Democracy movement, which seeks to control growth through local government referendums.

"The Legislature is punishing Tom Pelham, because he's starting to enforce growth management laws, and that wasn't happening before," said Eric Draper, a lobbyist for Audubon of Florida.

Even Gov. Charlie Crist thinks the Legislature is after Pelham.

In a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board on Friday, Crist acknowledged that Pelham's growth-curbing initiatives are struggling for traction and that lawmakers' efforts to remove Pelham's ability to give out grants is a slap at a member of his administration.

When asked why they're targeting Pelham for abuse, Crist said: "Because they like developers. How's that for straight talk?"

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

>>fast facts

Popular program

How it works: The Florida Communities Trust is a popular grant program that helps counties and cities purchase parks and trails. With such high demand for the grants, the agency uses the program as a growth management tool, giving special consideration to municipalities that show that a new or expanded park would help meet long-term growth management plans.

The plan: Since 1989, the program has been housed in the state's growth management agency, Department of Community Affairs. The Legislature wants to move Florida Communities Trust to be with other land-buying programs in the Department of Environmental Protection.

Agency that controls Florida growth could lose popular grant program 04/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 1:40pm]

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