Editorial: Don't further weaken growth management

Published March 13 2015
Updated March 13 2015

Two bills in the Florida Senate would further weaken what little growth policy still exists in the state. Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who is sponsoring both bills, should craft a narrower measure if his intent is to update the law rather than gut it entirely.

One bill changes a process called sector planning, which applies to landowners looking to convert large tracts into new housing and industrial projects. As the Tampa Bay Times' Dan DeWitt reported, SB 832 reduces the detail required in these plans, calling only for "a long-term vision" that sketches just the basic impacts of any development.

Environmentalists warn the change could weaken the ability of local governments to plan for growth-related impacts and lead to gaps in planning for large-scale developments that cross county lines. Officials could be asked to grant long-term development rights based on very little detail. The measure also creates a fast-track approval process that could prevent local, regional and state agencies from fully guarding against negative impacts from developments, such as worsening road congestion.

A second measure (SB 562) would change the process for reviewing developments of regional impact, or DRIs. The bill allows those projects to be reviewed by local governments as part of their comprehensive plans instead of being subjected to review by the state's regional planning councils.

Simpson is right that the DRI process can be convoluted. Many loopholes also enable developers to avoid much of the scrutiny that the law originally intended. But comprehensive plans are county-specific and poorly suited for looking at the larger regional or statewide picture. A better approach would be to strengthen the DRI process instead of farming it out to local governments, whose planning agencies were severely cut during the recession. The move also gives developers new leverage over local officials in the form of campaign contributions.

Florida should have used the recession as an opportunity to craft smarter growth policies — ones that grow the economy while also protecting against overheated property values and environmental risks. But these bills go in the opposite direction. As Audubon Florida's Charles Lee said, the bills "stomp on the head of any surviving vestige of growth management on the state level." Simpson said he wants the legislation to be "starting point" to bring other interested parties into the debate. He should look to strengthen the review process so that Florida's recovery does not merely lay the foundation for another real estate bubble.

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