Growth management, an imperfect but noble effort to protect Florida from selfishness and greed, died Thursday (June 2, 2011). The cause of death was legislation passed by a Legislature lacking perspective and signed into law by Rick Scott, a new governor ignorant of the state's history and indifferent about its future. • Growth Management was 26 years old. The agency that oversaw it, the now-vanquished Department of Community Affairs, is survived by a handful of relatives not up to carrying on the mission: water management districts decimated by spending cuts; regional planning councils and similar agencies with little authority; and county commissions with neither the will nor the vision to stand up to developers.
Born in 1985, Growth Management was supported in its youth by governors and legislators from both political parties who looked beyond the next election and were determined to keep Florida from strangling itself. The state had been growing wildly for decades, with local governments unwilling to say no to sprawling subdivisions, strip shopping centers and other commercial developments of all shapes and sizes. Huge chunks of undeveloped land disappeared almost overnight, traffic jams became routine, and overcrowded schools became suburban fixtures. Floridians feared their slice of paradise was being lost.
Growth Management was an ambitious attempt to bring some sanity to the mad rush to pave over Florida. It required cities and counties to plan for growth, determine where and how much development would be permitted, and forecast how roads, utilities and other services would be paid for to accommodate it all. Most important, the 1985 law gave the state the authority to approve or reject those plans. And under a concept called concurrency, developers eventually were forced to help pay for new roads, schools and parks to accommodate the growth their projects generated. In the late '80s and early '90s, Growth Management was a given. The question was how to pay for it. Florida never resolved that question, and now the state has given up on the very idea of managing growth.
A proud legacy
Before its demise, Growth Management claimed many successes. Taxpayers did not get stuck with the entire bill for public expenses created by private development. Communities planned better. Many developments moved forward after being redesigned, such as the Westshore area in Tampa. The state appropriately overruled counties that embraced such shortsighted schemes as allowing development closer to the Everglades in Miami-Dade County, dredging a state aquatic preserve to accommodate a marina and hotel in Taylor County, and building hundreds of condos on a mobile home park site on a barrier island in Palm Beach County.
Yet the empty shopping centers, backlog of housing and clogged roads are clear evidence that Growth Management did not choke off development. In fact, over the last four years the Department of Community Affairs approved changes to county plans to allow for more than 1 million new residential units and 2.7 billion square feet of commercial development. With the economic recession and the collapse of the housing market, much of that capacity has yet to be built.
Growth Management had powerful enemies: developers who did not want to pay their fair share; legislators who railed against government regulation; local officials who were too cozy with builders and land-use lawyers. Tom Pelham, who served as secretary of the Department of Community Affairs under two Republican governors and deserves a medal for his commitment to saving Florida, was all but hung in effigy. In the final years, Pelham was the first to acknowledge regulations could be overhauled to more fairly assess road costs and better steer development to urban areas. Rather than fix Growth Management, opponents seized on the economic recession as an opportunity to kill it.
The painful end
Growth Management had been on life support for months as legislators, developers and business groups shamefully repackaged a visionary effort to save Florida into a demon to be slain. Gov. Charlie Crist signaled the beginning of the end in 2009 when he signed the precursor to this year's death sentence. Scott demonized Growth Management as he campaigned for governor last year, and he joined state lawmakers this year in claiming less regulation will create more jobs. They said virtually nothing about creating a quality of life — clean water, clear roads, good schools, nice parks — needed to attract and keep businesses and workers.
A last-ditch plea for a reprieve by former Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, who signed the 1985 legislation into law, and Republican environmentalist Nat Reed failed to sway Scott. Now the state has given up virtually all of its oversight of development and its authority to require developers to help pay for roads, schools and parks. Local governments can pretty much do as they please. Florida has turned the clock back three decades.
Growth Management died quietly. There were no bill-signing ceremonies or front-page headlines to mark its passing. But for Floridians who care about the future of their state, the loss is devastating.