When Gov. Charlie Crist caved in to developers last year and eviscerated Florida's growth management laws, he pledged to push the Legislature this year to create a new fee to help pay for roads to accommodate new development. Lawmakers even included in the legislation a study on how to create such a mobility fee. So much for promises.
The study is sitting on a shelf, and the governor has not made a peep about it. Meanwhile, the Senate takes up legislation today that continues the assault on growth management. Masquerading as a major job creation bill, SB 1752 is stuffed with special interest tax breaks and provisions aimed at letting developers run roughshod over the few remaining checks on paving what's left of Florida. This is not about helping the unemployed find work. This is about using the recession as an excuse to create more tax breaks and weaken environmental protections to please powerful special interests in an election year.
The bill's original sponsor, Republican Sen. Don Gaetz of Destin, contends this is a well-meaning effort to speed up permitting so government does not stand in the way of progress. It's really just a way for developers to further game the system. One provision buried in the 129-page bill would require state and local governments as well as water management districts to act on every environmental permit within 30 days or the permit would be automatically approved. That is an impossible deadline on often complicated issues, and the result would be rubber-stamp approvals of projects that otherwise would not get off the drawing board.
Another offensive provision is more direct. It flatly says any project of up to 40 acres would no longer need any state or local environmental permits. The signature and seal of a professional engineer hired by the developer would do just fine. This is smart economic development? To encourage building more strip malls and subdivisions in an era of empty storefronts and record home foreclosures by making it easier to build in wetlands and other sensitive areas? Brilliant.
But give credit to lawmakers for learning something. Supporters of last year's Developer Relief Act, SB 360, are furious that Secretary of Community Affairs Tom Pelham concluded it did not apply to local government efforts to force growth to pay for itself. So today's jobs bill has a poison pill requiring counties such as Hillsborough that issue wetland permits to also take over all of the state's environmental permitting obligations by 2011 — or stop issuing their own permits. A separate bill, SB 1742, would obliterate those local growth controls lawmakers thought they wiped out last year. Its sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton, also sponsored last year's demolition of growth management that included the transportation fee study — the one sitting on a shelf that no one mentions.
So when the governor and state legislators claim creating more tax breaks and allowing developers to build wherever they want will create jobs and bring back prosperity, Floridians should be skeptical. Promises made in Tallahassee are often quickly forgotten.