Despite four years of heavy artillery from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and others, a citizens' petition aimed at giving voters veto power over developers' plans finally has reached the ballot. The so-called Hometown Democracy initiative, which would require voter approval for changes to any local government comprehensive plan, will appear on the November 2010 ballot as Amendment 4. But as tempting as it may be for Floridians to embrace the measure because they're fed up with elected officials' failure to rein in growth, it is the wrong approach. Hometown Democracy identified a problem, but its solution would lead to gridlock.
As a three-year experiment in St. Pete Beach shows, land planning via referendum is a messy, unpredictable business that leads to higher government costs due to litigation and a stalemate when it comes to development. Hometown Democracy backers argue that is preferable to the status quo, where developers too easily get their way with local officials. But replacing an imperfect model with one just as flawed — and just as likely to be exploited by well-financed developers — isn't the answer.
The case of St. Pete Beach is instructive. A 2006 Hometown Democracy-like citizen petition won there after the city commission approved comprehensive plan changes increasing density and height allowances. Fearing condo canyons like those found in South Florida, voters repealed the changes and voted to require all future comprehensive plan changes to go before voters.
But by June 2008, a group backed by development interests took full use of the initiative process to convince voters to support a business-friendly comprehensive plan. Now all sides are in court and the Florida Department of Community Affairs has yet to rule whether the 2008 plan complies with state law. The upshot: This city of 10,000 has incurred $240,000 in legal fees this fiscal year. It has budgeted $265,000 for next year. And owners seeking to change or develop their property remain in legal limbo, unsure which density and height restrictions apply.
The balance of power hasn't changed in St. Pete Beach, just the rules of the game. Now, instead of negotiating with city planners or trying to curry favor with elected officials on major land-use changes, developers are able to put something on the ballot for an up-or-down vote and make the calculated investment to win the election. Lost are any negotiated compromises with city officials.
Development interests are often far better at the political game than the grass roots opposition. For the four years Hometown Democracy has been collecting signatures, the state's big business lobby has been the driving force behind changes to the constitutional amendment process, from tighter petition gathering requirements to raising the required voter approval rate for amendments to 60 percent. It persuaded the Legislature to pass a law allowing petition signers to revoke their signatures — a law the Florida Supreme Court struck down earlier this month. And now, the lobby, though supposedly opposed to constitutional amendments, is backing a sneaky one of its own for the 2010 ballot that would gut Amendment 4's mission. The measure, pushed by a group known as Floridians for Smarter Growth, would only require elections on comprehensive plan changes if 10 percent of voters travel to the elections office to request a vote. That is even more unworkable than Amendment 4.
Developers hold too much political influence at all levels of government, which was reinforced by Gov. Charlie Crist's indefensible decision to sign SB 360 and gut Florida's growth management laws. Floridians' concerns about unchecked growth have been largely ignored, and Hometown Democracy has tapped a legitimate anger.
But turning complex community development decisions into an up-or-down vote without any quality negotiations won't solve that problem. It will take electing candidates who embrace growth management and responsible development.