Gov. Rick Scott told a group of editors and reporters this month that Florida needs to manage growth, but his actions suggest he is headed in a different direction. First he demonized all state regulation, as if that were the root cause of the economic collapse in Florida. Then he appointed a former executive of the St. Joe Co. to run the Department of Community Affairs — at least as long as it exists. The reality is there are ample development opportunities in the pipeline, and there are ways to improve how Florida manages growth without giving away what's left to developers.
Billy Buzzett, the new secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, helped St. Joe win approval of plans to transform thousands of acres of forests in the Florida Panhandle into thousands of residential units. He overcame local opposition to move a major highway away from the gulf to create more room for condos. He helped run over the concerns of environmentalists to get an unnecessarily large new airport built on land donated by St. Joe. Now St. Joe is subsidizing Southwest Airlines' operation there, where flights have been less than 60 percent full. Thousands of acres that were to be preserved are not yet in public hands, and development on other St. Joe land has stalled because of the economy — not overregulation. That hardly sounds like the ideal resume for the state's top growth management administrator. On the plus side, Buzzett has some qualities Scott lacks: deep roots in Florida and experience in state government and public policy, including serving as executive director of the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission.
Scott should review a recent report by the departed Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham, who has been unfairly cast as a villain for his valiant attempts to manage growth under two Republican governors. The report notes that between 2007 and 2010 the department approved growth management amendments covering 1.9 million acres of land, 1 million units of residential property and 2.7 billion square feet of nonresidential development. That does not add up to a devious plan to strangle growth.
Pelham's reasonable efforts to improve growth management were ignored by the Legislature when it approved SB 360, which gutted the law in a misguided, failed attempt to spur development in a deep recession. A court has overturned the law, and the legislative committees have approved a series of bills aimed at correcting technical flaws. While Buzzett served on a Scott transition team that recommended dismantling the DCA and merging its responsibilities into a bigger department, at least he has told reporters it is too early to tell what direction growth management should take and its real impact on job creation.
There is a reasonable approach. For example, several environmental groups have recommended that the state recommit itself to requiring development to cover the cost of the infrastructure and public services it requires. That would save public money, and there are ways to do it more fairly. The environmentalists also embrace waiving some planning requirements and transportation fees in developed urban areas — as long as those areas are more tightly defined than they were in SB 360. In Hillsborough County, for example, Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico pointed out this month, the legislation she voted against applied to the county's urban service area that is so big it is "not a downtown Miami. It's not downtown Tampa. It's downtown Wimauma, which has suburban lands, strawberries and peppers."
Instead of decimating growth management, the Scott administration and the Legislature should look for ways to improve it.