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A recipe for sprawl

In November, Florida voters will decide the fate of Amendment 4, a controversial plan to change our state Constitution. Leading business, labor, planning, health care and good-government groups have opposed Amendment 4 because it will lead to higher taxes and fewer jobs. While the backers of Amendment 4 say that their proposal is good for the environment, they have failed to win the full support of Florida's environmental community.

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The reason is simple: Amendment 4 may encourage sprawl, which is harmful to our environment and costly for taxpayers. In the long run, it will make it much harder for local governments to set aside parklands, encourage energy-efficient building, promote smarter growth and preserve green spaces.

By requiring a referendum for every change to a local government's comprehensive plan, Amendment 4 is likely to prompt votes on dozens — and potentially hundreds — of minor housekeeping issues. Plan changes that are good for the environment such as building a transit system, turning agricultural land into conservation land, or transforming an abandoned commercial space into a public park, would become the victim of endless delays, higher costs and possible litigation. Local governments and environmental groups will lack the resources (or the legal ability) to push environmentally oriented plan amendments through the crucible of a high-priced political campaign. The end result will not be a simple up or down vote on important issues. Most good ideas will never leave the drawing board.

For example, when the city of St. Petersburg adopted its original comprehensive plan in the 1980s, technology had not yet made possible the inclusion of energy-efficient building standards. When that technology became available in the 1990s, the City Council wisely updated the comprehensive plan to encourage more environmentally sound building. Under Amendment 4, these types of revisions would have been expensive for taxpayers, cumbersome and long-delayed at best. At worst, they never would have happened.

The EPA has just announced new, tighter water and air pollution standards that local governments have to reach. These changes will require dozens of changes throughout every city's comprehensive plan. Amendment 4 would require a vote on each of these minor, technical amendments — even though cities are required to make these changes. Under Amendment 4, taxpayers will be forced to pay for referendum after referendum until a sufficient number of proposals pass to meet the new pollution standards.

Similarly, Central Florida is about to embark on a series of major improvements to mass transit. The high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando will be funded with stimulus dollars. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are both working on projects to connect light rail and improved bus systems with high- speed rail.

These projects will require comprehensive and land-use changes all along the rail corridors. Amendment 4 would require a separate vote for each change, and in this case it would be hundreds of votes. This makes it less likely that these important transit projects will ever be built.

And Amendment 4 will not stop large developers. On the contrary, it will pave the way for sprawling development into the most pristine parts of our state.

Thousands of acres in Florida are set aside for "agricultural" use in existing comprehensive plans. By making plan changes virtually impossible within the "urban core," Amendment 4 would virtually guarantee the more rapid development of these environmentally sensitive lands.

Amendment 4 will make comprehensive plan changes so expensive and time-consuming that well-planned development will become extremely difficult. Few companies will be willing to finance the media campaigns required to pursue comprehensive plan changes. Instead, they will pursue unchecked development in rural areas.

Although few leading environmental groups are happy with the status quo, few have been willing to endorse Amendment 4. The reason why: Two wrongs don't make a right.

Karl Nurse is a St. Petersburg City Council member. He is Pinellas County co-chairman of Floridians for Smarter Growth.

A recipe for sprawl 02/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2010 11:20pm]

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