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Guest column | Ryan Houck

Hometown Democracy is a disaster

Concrete is the road to sprawl June 30, guest column

Florida Hometown Democracy President Lesley Blackner railed against the Suncoast Parkway in 1999 and is now using it as an excuse to impose her new pet project — the thrice-failed "Hometown Democracy" proposal — on every community in Florida.

If passed, her amendment would outsource hundreds of technical land planning issues directly to the ballot box. To get an idea of what this would mean, consider that Florida has averaged 10,599 changes to local land use plans each year for the last four years. Under her amendment, all of them would have been on the ballot.

The St. Petersburg Times challenged the wisdom of such a system in a May 31 editorial, saying "to see just how complicated and unmanageable land planning by referendum is even in a small city, look no further than St. Pete Beach."

If you want to see "Hometown Democracy" in action then take a look at the chaos it created in St. Pete Beach. In this small Pinellas County town, taxpayer-funded legal battles and nonstop political infighting have shut down the local economy and frustrated citizens.

St. Pete Beach proves that Hometown Democracy-style government promotes conflict over cooperation and turns a planning process into a political campaign. In the long run, it takes power away from citizens.

Former St. Pete Beach Mayor Ward Friszolowski noted in a published statement that after living through the Hometown Democracy nightmare, "even die-hard disciples of the Hometown Democracy religion have since converted back to common sense."

Ms. Blackner should acknowledge the economic catastrophe her idea has created in one hometown and stop trying to take the idea statewide.

And for those troubled by Florida's struggling economy, consider today's downturn a mild version of what Hometown Democracy is promising for the new status quo.

Unfortunately, jobs do not appear to be a top concern of the Hometown Democracy crowd.

Blackner is quick to demean affordable housing communities and those who live in them. She even says that homes near the Suncoast Parkway are "far from (real) jobs" — a comment that may cause some Floridians to wonder if they have what Ms. Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer, considers a "real job."

The comments might be excused as no more than misguided rhetoric had they not been packaged in half-truths about Hometown Democracy.

While reality may not fit with the Hometown Democracy playbook, the truth is that most comprehensive plan changes are small quality-of-life improvements coming from local governments, not developers. Such improvements regularly provide for wetlands protections, new schools, hospitals, community centers, public parks and roads.

Hometown Democracy promises to bury these meaningful projects beneath hundreds of technical plan changes. While communities are torn apart by endless legal battles and costly referenda, nothing will get done. Schools will not be built. Hospitals will not be approved. Roads will not be planned.

At the end of the day, the folks behind Hometown Democracy do not really believe in "empowering" voters or "trusting the people." They believe in stopping all growth at any cost.

If it means invalidating a few elections, crippling our planning process and turning every public vote into a lawsuit, so be it.

More than 100 community organizations throughout Florida have taken public positions against the so-called Hometown Democracy amendment. This list includes recognized leaders in Florida's business, environmental, planning, government, labor and growth management communities. Many of these groups will agree that we must do a better job of managing growth in Florida. However, all have been quick to point out that Hometown Democracy is not the answer.

Ms. Blackner is proposing a sledgehammer solution when most Floridians just want smarter, more effective planning. We are asking for a better way; one that encourages thoughtful citizen participation but guards against the inefficient, costly and fruitless chaos promised by Hometown Democracy.

Ryan Houck is executive director of Floridians for Smarter Growth.

Hometown Democracy is a disaster 07/30/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:14pm]
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