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Voters, take a comprehensive pause on Amendment 4

If Amendment 4 on Tuesday's statewide ballot becomes a part of the Florida Constitution, residents will vote on any change their local government wants to make to the community's "comprehensive land use plan."

When I asked Pinellas County Planning Director Brian Smith to estimate how many land use changes Pinellas' 25 city and county governments have made in the past couple of years, he didn't hesitate: "Oh, hundreds."

If Amendment 4 passes, local governments will work to consolidate the changes so they won't have to hold so many referendums, but Smith thinks Pinellas voters still will face decisions on 100 or so land use matters a year.

One of many problems with Amendment 4 is that it sets no threshold for land use referendums. Advertising by Hometown Democracy, the group responsible for getting Amendment 4 on the ballot, implies that voters would make decisions on only large-scale changes. Simply reading the amendment proves that that is not true. Voters would have to decide all land use changes, whether they affect a half-acre or 100 acres.

Final land use decisions currently are made by local elected officials in public meetings where residents can comment. City and county staffers provide those officials with background information about each case, including maps, pictures and the staff's professional opinion.

Here are some actual land use cases handled by local governments in Pinellas this year. They are examples of the kinds of cases voters will be trekking to the polls to decide if Amendment 4 passes on Tuesday.

Pinellas voter, is this really a job you want?

• Last spring, Publix Super Markets asked St. Petersburg for a land use change on a 0.79-acre portion of a 4.6-acre parcel where there is a Publix store. Publix wanted to build a supermarket to replace the one built in 1973, but the 0.79-acre parcel it needed was designated only for residential use.

If Amendment 4 were in place, city voters would have to confirm the change after the city and other planning authorities approved it. Then, all county residents likely would have to approve it, too, because the city and county land use maps must be "consistent" with each other.

• In September Clearwater annexed more than 30 single-family homes in an unincorporated area. When any property is annexed, it must be assigned a land use designation, and unless the city's designation matches the designation that the county uses, a land use change is required.

The City Council approved a residential land use designation for every annexed home. If Amendment 4 had been in place, city voters would have been called to the polls to confirm the land use designations.

What if Clearwater voters said no?

• In September Oldsmar approved new land use designations for about 59 acres along the east bank of the Lake Tarpon Outfall Canal. The land, owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, was being annexed into the city, and the city planned to build a recreational trail on it.

Sounds simple, but the actual land use changes — and therefore any ballot question that would have been required under Amendment 4 — were complicated, because they involved multiple parcels and changes to two land use designations.

• This month several Pinellas local governments approved a new land use category called "transit-oriented development" to allow for an eventual light-rail line and railway stations. This change also provided for objectives, policies and densities within the transit-oriented development category. Under Amendment 4, voters would have to approve the new category and its other provisions before they could become part of the plan.

Making decisions about land use can be complicated and requires a good grounding in planning principles and an understanding of the property in question. Elected officials get that information from their staffs, but no provision has been made for getting the information to voters if Amendment 4 is approved. And voters who don't have enough information tend to vote no.

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

Voters, take a comprehensive pause on Amendment 4 10/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 1:41pm]
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