As the legislative session heads into its final two weeks, the most egregious efforts to dismantle growth management, wipe out impact fees and kill the state's planning agency may be fading. The bad news is that lawmakers are still focused on using the economic recession as an excuse to make it even easier for developers to further clog roads and create more sprawl. They have identified the right regulatory issues, but their proposed solution is all wrong.
The Senate's main growth management legislation, SB 360, appears to be reasonable compared to other proposals floating around the House. But do not be fooled by its name, the Community Renewal Act. In more than a half-dozen of Florida's largest counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, developers would no longer have to pay for road improvements to accommodate the traffic many of their projects would generate. The Development of Regional Impact review process for large projects would be all but scrapped in those counties and large cities. Penalties for failing to require schools to be in place to handle new development would be scrapped. And the state review of county changes to comprehensive plans would be accelerated just as legislators continue to put the budget squeeze on the state agency that performs the reviews. When the economy recovers, these changes would lead to exactly the kind of unchecked growth that has clogged Tampa Bay and other urban areas.
Florida's growth management laws are far from perfect. Tom Pelham, the widely respected secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, agrees there is no need to require difficult road improvements for new development in dense downtown areas. He also agrees that the DRI process is far from perfect. But as he negotiates with hostile legislators he is reluctant to say what needs to be said: The Senate's cures appear reasonable in contrast to other proposals, but they still go too far.
For example, in Hillsborough, transportation concurrency requirements would not just be eliminated in downtown Tampa. They would go away in a much larger area that includes Carrollwood, Brandon, Seffner, Riverview and Sun City. The last thing those suburban areas need is more development without any money for road improvements. Pelham's agency is studying new ways to more fairly spread the cost of road improvements. Lawmakers should wait for those results before eliminating a key growth management tool in the biggest counties.
Similarly, the DRI review process for large developments could use some work. But the solution is not to eliminate it in these cities and counties without offering a substitute. How will local governments be held accountable in their eagerness to approve big projects? Shouldn't those enormous developments that will impact residents far outside the local government boundaries have a broader review?
To their credit, Sens. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, voted against this overreaching bill earlier this month. They likely will see a revised version in the next two weeks as the Senate and House negotiate, and they should continue to stand firm against growth management bills that masquerade as reform. This legislation may be better than some of the alternatives floating around, but that does not make it acceptable.