When a Treasure Island developer wanted to fill acres of Taylor County wetlands and dredge a 2-mile canal through an aquatic preserve, the Florida Department of Community Affairs objected. The state's growth management agency stood firm after the local county commissioners caved, and the canal and marina were scrapped. The developer still seeks to destroy 44 acres of wetlands to build hundreds of condominium units, a hotel, commercial space and a golf course.
Consider this exhibit No. 1 of many to refute the falsehoods being circulated in Tallahassee to justify abolishing the Department of Community Affairs. A House committee, under the guise of economic development, is considering a bill today that would eliminate the agency and eviscerate the state's ability to manage growth. It would shift what's left to the Department of State, an agency that already has its hands full with elections, corporation records, the state archives and cultural affairs. Similar efforts are under way in the Senate. Gov. Charlie Crist and more enlightened legislators have to stand up to the business interests, developers and lawmakers behind this assault on growth management.
The bill sponsors contend the Department of Community Affairs has been an arbitrary impediment to development in Florida and is responsible for helping plunge this state into the economic recession. That is a spurious argument. Their real intent is to dismantle what few constraints Florida puts on growth by handing more responsibility to local governments, which are far less likely to say no to developers. In Taylor County, the state hasn't halted the offensive development. It simply made sure the public's interests — including significant questions about the project's impact in the flood-prone area — were considered as required by law. The county commissioners were all too willing to ignore that and side with the developer.
Legislators behind these devious efforts are ignoring that Florida's permitting requirements, most of which were in place in the recent boom, have not stalled growth. In fact, developers and loose financial regulations led to overbuilding, leaving Florida with 300,000 vacant homes.
Growth management regulation does need to be improved. DCA Secretary Tom Pelham agrees the state review of significant development proposals takes too long. And he shares the concerns that a 2006 law requiring transportation improvements makes it too difficult for inner-city projects to gain approval. Addressing those issues would be in everyone's best interest.
But that's not on the agenda this morning before the House Military and Local Affairs Committee. Instead, developers and their allies are using the economic crisis to advance their own agenda to squash those who act in the public's interest. Committee members — including two local lawmakers, Rep. Ron Schultz, R-Homosassa, and Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole — need to have the courage to vote no. Leadership is about moving this state forward on a sustainable path for all Floridians, not making it easier for developers to run roughshod over the landscape.