More than a quarter-million houses sit vacant in Florida, home values are still falling and the foreclosure rate is the nation's second highest. Yet Republican legislators claim one of the keys to economic recovery is rolling back impact fees and safeguards on the environment to help developers. Unbridled growth, overdevelopment and an overheated real estate market helped set Florida up for this economic collapse, and starting the cycle all over again is no way to get out.
This fact is indisputable: Environmental permits required under current federal and state law have not been a barrier to growth in Florida. Just look at the 300,000 houses that are empty. Nor did environmental protections curtail the runaway population growth that was the Florida norm until recently. The state's population grew by 2 million, to 18 million, in just six years.
In fact, Florida's requirements for developers have been too lenient, resulting in severe stress on the water supply, roads and schools. The day before the St. Petersburg Times reported about the legislators' efforts to roll back environmental regulation, Tampa Bay Water announced it would seek the toughest water restrictions ever and exceed its pumping request for the aquifer to make it through the current drought.
That means Tampa Bay is using more water than is sustainable in times of cyclical drought. To be sure, part of the problem is that the utility's reservoir isn't able to hold as much water as it was designed for due to construction problems. But that doesn't change the fact that Tampa Bay residents and businesses are using more water than is sustainable.
Yet, the Hillsborough County Commission has already barrelled down the irresponsible path some state lawmakers are contemplating. The commission directed the county administrator to explore ways to expedite building and environmental permits for new construction.
The Republican senator helping to lead the charge to relax development permitting is Mike Bennett of Bradenton. He wants to block local governments from charging impact fees on new homes and eliminate most state oversight of massive new developments. In the House, Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, an engineer who has worked for some of Florida's biggest developers, wants to make it easier for new developments to qualify for large water permits. These would be steps backward, not forward.
In times of crisis, some politicians and special interests will exploit the situation to pursue their own narrow agendas. So the cry goes out about overregulation, as though that is foremost in the minds of Floridians who are losing their jobs, their homes and their futures. Making it easier and cheaper to build will not help them. It is a tired refrain that reflects the state's boom-and-bust history, and lawmakers should be focused on breaking that cycle instead of perpetuating it.