A few weeks ago, the well-regarded national business journal Chief Executive ranked Florida third in the nation as a business-friendly state. Florida received high marks because of its low taxes, business-friendly regulations and strong quality of life. Florida Trend lists quality of life as one of the top 10 reasons to do business in Florida, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce identifies it as one of its six pillars for Florida's future.
But during the 2011 session, "probusiness" Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature put Florida's quality of life squarely in their crosshairs. Florida's quarter-century-old system of managing growth was gutted. Important measures to protect the environment were tossed. Long-standing programs to protect drinking water sources and water quality were slashed. This was in the name of promoting jobs, even though extensive residential and commercial development approved by local and state governments over the last few years has yet to be built.
How can destroying Florida's quality of life, degrading its drinking water, and passing the costs of development off to taxpayers be an effective long-term economic development strategy? It can't be, especially in light of declining property values. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Bay area property values have dropped by more than 50 percent since 2006; close to 60 percent of area homeowners are underwater on their mortgages; and some experts say the worst is yet to come.
What has happened? Florida's leaders are supporting short-term gain over long-term, sustainable economic prosperity. They view this state as nothing more than a commodity, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder regardless of the consequences. This harks back to the anything-goes days of the 1960s and 1970s when the Everglades burned, untreated sewage poured into the Gulf of Mexico, and local taxpayers footed the bill for roads and sewer systems for unneeded new development. Back then, Florida's quality of life took a nosedive, and taxpayers clamored for passage of the now-gutted 1985 growth management act.
Public opinion polls consistently show most Florida residents support protecting natural areas, safeguarding drinking water and maintaining a high quality of life. Floridians understand that effective growth management is essential if Florida is to prosper in the 21st century. So in light of what happened during the legislative session, how do we best protect and sustain these qualities that make Florida so attractive to residents and visitors, and that are needed to attract new business?
As in 1985, Floridians need to give local and state elected officials a wakeup call. At the local level, engage in the community's planning process. Monitor changes to community plans and speak out at public hearings. Call on local government to give residents more say in community planning. Join local smart growth and conservation organizations that address these issues, and become an active participant. Encourage friends to become involved in planning the community's future. Write letters to the editor and share your views through social media. When candidates run for office, ask for their position on managing growth and protecting the environment, and vote accordingly.
Similarly, at the state level support those candidates who understand that growth management is essential for a sustainable future. Demand that legislators and the governor craft bipartisan solutions to ensure that development occurs in appropriate locations, significant natural resources are protected, and developers pay the costs associated with new development. Remind elected leaders that it is much harder for businesses to relocate to Florida when each of more than 470 local governments has its own rules regarding growth. Share with them that Florida paves over rural lands and destroys the source of much of the state's drinking water, businesses won't want to move here. Likewise, clogged roads, crowded schools and rivers polluted with runoff from development will not lure business and their workers to this state.
Florida is at a critical juncture. There is no doubt that this state's quality of life and environment suffered serious setbacks during the 2011 session. It will not be easy to turn the tide but it can be done, as it was in 1985.
Charles Pattison is president and chief executive of 1000 Friends of Florida, 1000friendsofflorida.org, a statewide nonprofit established in 1986 to serve as a watchdog over growth management in Florida.