First they gutted the state's growth management law. And it wasn't enough. Then they killed the state department that enforced the law. And it still wasn't enough. Now state lawmakers are pursuing legislation that would let Pasco County and a half-dozen other counties join those that can approve large developments without a state review to see if adequate roads, schools and other services can handle the growth. When it comes to making developers happy in the Florida Legislature, there is never enough.
Supporters of the legislation, SB 372, say it will promote construction and create tax revenue by reducing regulation. Hardly. It encourages urban sprawl, kills requirements for desirable infill development and allows local governments to ignore concerns from neighboring jurisdictions when new projects pop up just outside their borders. That's a one-way trade-off for enriching developers.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, allows developers to more quickly pave over open areas in Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota and four other counties by further relaxing so-called Development of Regional Impact requirements adopted in 1972. Proposed developments in Hillsborough, Pinellas and six other counties with at least 900,000 residents already are excused from state reviews under a disastrous 2009 law that eviscerated growth management. Now SB 372 would remove even cursory state review in these seven additional counties by rewriting the definition of "dense urban area" to include counties of at least 300,000 residents. That's roughly one household per 3 acres, which shouldn't meet anybody's definition of high density, as a Sierra Club Florida lobbyist pointed out.
Galvano maintains the DRI requirement is valid only for rural communities and has become obsolete in larger counties with more sophisticated planning staffs. But how can Hernando or Sumter counties be guaranteed adequate input on Pasco-based projects without a required regional review? Absent encouragement to take a broader regional perspective, parochialism runs wild. It means larger counties can be free to ignore neighbors' concerns about traffic, natural resources or other impacts from massive developments.
Sophistication, meanwhile, is hard to define. While Pasco County's planners have been praised for their innovation, their work also needs state oversight. In 2009-10, for instance, state reviewers twice kicked back plans for the controversial, 2,500-home SunWest Harbourtowne project near the Pasco-Hernando border. The county-approved proposal allowed too many homes in a high-velocity wind zone and failed to safeguard wildlife such as black bears.
The real danger of removing DRI requirements is to put what should be regional land-use decisions solely into the hands of locally elected officials whose political campaigns have been bankrolled by developers, builders and large landowners looking to cash in and turn rural pastures into new cities. There is very little left of growth management. Instead of killing the remainder, legislators should be trying to improve land-use planning by enhancing regional cooperation and retaining incentives for infill development now that the construction industry is showing signs of an economic rebound.