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Amendment 4 is not the way to control development

If Amendment 4, the so-called "Hometown Democracy" amendment on the Nov. 2 statewide ballot, is approved, it will require voters to go to the polls to approve or veto local land use changes. It may prompt lawsuits, increase local governments' legal fees and slow growth when Florida is desperate for economic recovery.

Why would voters install such a potentially damaging amendment in the state Constitution? It could be because public officials are doing a mighty good job of convincing voters that Amendment 4 is necessary.

Last week Florida Hometown Democracy, the group that got Amendment 4 on the ballot, was outraged about the Manatee County Commission. Tuesday that commission considered a land use change to allow a developer to build up to three homes per acre on 28 acres of a 49-acre tract known as Robinson Farms.

That's a density increase, which prompted vociferous opposition from residents. People also fought the change because about half of the 49 acres is coastal high-hazard area on the county's current land use map. All of it is high hazard on a new hurricane evacuation map.

The County Commission voted 4-3 against the land use change. But two hours later, after most opponents had left the room, Commissioner Gwen Brown had a chat with the developer's consultant about the maps, called for reconsideration, reversed her vote and the plan change was approved 4-3.

The re-vote "shows the power of developers to get their way," said Yes on 4 campaign manager Mitch Kates. "And Amendment 4 is the only solution …"

Whether Brown was confused about the maps or just changed her vote as a favor to the developer, the result was the same: Opponents felt disenfranchised and believed the developer used undue influence. And those who said it was folly to put more residents in an area at special risk in a hurricane felt their sensible message was ignored.

Some Pinellas residents are feeling similarly burned by recent decisions allowing Clearwater Christian College to destroy almost 5 acres of wetlands to expand.

Five acres of wetlands. In Pinellas County. This is a place where a resident who trims mangroves too severely may find the mangrove police at his door. It's a place where developers have been forced to avoid even small patches of wetlands.

But Clearwater Christian College wants to build a chapel and more dormitories and a new parking lot. And the Clearwater City Council said okay. So did the Pinellas Planning Council. Tuesday, so did a majority of the Pinellas County Commission. And opponents are aghast.

If the college wants to expand, it doesn't have much choice but to destroy wetlands to do it. The campus is on a small peninsula that juts into Old Tampa Bay from the west end of the Courtney Campbell Parkway. It is completely hemmed in by marshy wetlands, mangroves, bird habitat and shallow bay waters.

The college promised that in exchange for approval, it would, among other things, "improve" 99 acres of wetlands it owns on the peninsula. The college would do that in part by widening years-old mosquito ditches that crisscross the wetlands. Mosquito ditching is widely regarded as destructive to the environment, not an improvement.

The entire campus is designated a coastal high-hazard area. Opponents of the expansion, in addition to arguing that the project would have negative impacts on wetlands, an eagle nest, birds, the bay and traffic on the causeway, said it was crazy to let the college expand and move more students to a site that is so vulnerable. Opponents predicted that if officials turned down the request, the college eventually would create a satellite campus in a better spot.

But since the elected boards have approved the idea, the college will now seek approval from regulatory agencies, which opponents hope will be more concerned about the environment. Some opponents have invoked Amendment 4, saying it is the only way to prevent such wrongheaded decisions by elected officials in the future.

It would be nice if Amendment 4 were the answer, but it isn't. It is the wrong tool to fix a complex and long-term issue, and it will create new and expensive problems for which taxpayers will pay the price. What Florida needs is a Legislature that will improve rather than weaken growth management laws, public officials who support those laws, and more voters showing up on Election Day to give officials their report cards.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials of the Clearwater & North Pinellas Times.

Amendment 4 is not the way to control development 10/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 16, 2010 5:31am]

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