State legislators are pushing to dismantle the agency in charge of managing growth, arguing that it's standing in the way of reviving Florida's economy.
A proposal unveiled Monday for consideration by a House committee on Wednesday calls for taking the Department of Community Affairs apart, handing over nearly all of its duties to Secretary of State Kurt Browning.
The move is one of a host of measures proposed by lawmakers to stimulate the state's economy by loosening the rules on construction permitting. Other proposals include eliminating impact fees designed to make developers pay for roads, sewers and schools needed for growth, and cutting in half the time allowed for reviewing permits for wiping out wetlands.
Environmental activists say speculation-fueled development, not government regulation, is what caused Florida's economic downfall. State figures show there are more than 300,000 houses sitting vacant throughout Florida.
"Proposals to 'solve' the economic crisis by loosening growth management regulations and defunding or abolishing the Florida Department of Community Affairs just make matters worse, not better," Audubon of Florida's Charles Lee contended.
Legislators who doubt the importance of controlling growth "should consult those of us who are stuck in daily traffic jams, have children in overcrowded schools, or are residents of sprawling developments," the pro-planning organization 1,000 Friends of Florida said in a release critical of the proposed bill.
The push for dismantling the Department of Community Affairs comes as the agency is rewriting the state building code to require greater energy efficiency, one of Gov. Charlie Crist's initiatives for combating climate change. The department also reviews local government growth plans, provides funding for streets and parks and coordinates the state's response to hurricanes, wildfires and other emergencies.
Under Crist's pick as secretary, Tom Pelham, the agency has blocked such controversial projects as the mammoth Wiregrass development off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Pasco County and a Taylor County development proposed by St. Petersburg surgeon J. Crayton Pruitt.
Pelham's agency blocked the Wiregrass development — which promised 12,000 homes or apartments, three elementary schools and enough stores to fill two major shopping malls — because Pasco officials failed to nail down road improvements to accommodate all that growth.
And in Taylor County, Pruitt had proposed destroying 58 acres of wetlands adjacent to a state aquatic preserve in order to build 624 condominium units, an 874-unit hotel, 280,000 square feet of commercial space and a golf course. Pelham contended those plans went far beyond the state's plans for how the coast should be developed and failed to protect the fragile environment.
Now the House Military Affairs and Local Government Committee wants to take Pelham's agency, which has an annual budget of $200 million, completely apart.
The bill would take emergency management and put it directly under Crist. All other duties of Pelham's agency would go to the Secretary of State's Office, and it would be up to Browning to recommend to lawmakers what to keep and what to throw out.
The bill also allows local governments to skip state review on changes to their growth plans, as well as exempts some local governments from requirements that new roads be in place by the time new development is built.
Over on the Senate side, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, has filed a simpler bill, SB 730: "The Legislature intends to abolish the Department of Community Affairs and provide for the reorganization of its services among other agencies."
Pelham warned the bill would "eviscerate the growth management process to the detriment of our state," and said he found the proposal to dismantle his department very disappointing. Neither the House nor the Senate has conducted any sort of thorough review of what the department does, he pointed out.
Browning — whose agency already oversees elections, maintains corporate records and catalogs what's in the state historical archive — didn't ask for the change, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis. Browning's staff found out about the proposal on Monday and is reviewing how it would affect the agency's mission and budget, she said.