One example of the damage inflicted on local government authority by Senate Bill 360, the pro-growth bill signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist a few weeks ago, was apparent at last week's Tarpon Springs City Commission meeting. That awful new law could hamstring the commission as it tries to decide whether to cancel an existing development agreement with Wal-Mart. Canceling the development agreement could be the wrong call anyway, but wouldn't it be nice if the city could make that decision for itself, rather than having to defer to the state Legislature's wrongheaded goals?
SB 360 gutted the state's growth management laws, supposedly in the name of stimulating the stumbling economy. In fact, the new law is a gift to Florida developers and a slap in the face to the residents who must cope with the results of inadequately managed growth. Though residents and local governments fought hard to kill the bill, the Legislature passed it and the governor signed it. Now, nothing can be done before next year's legislative session.
Among the bill's many provisions is a requirement that any development agreement between a developer and local government that was due to expire after Sept. 1, 2008, is automatically extended an additional two years.
Wal-Mart has a controversial plan to build a supercenter on the bank of the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs. Opponents have fought the plan for years, even after a previous City Commission approved the project. The site plan and building permits for the project now have expired and Wal-Mart will be required to go through a new site plan approval process and apply for new permits if it wants to go ahead with the project. So far, the company has insisted that it plans to proceed with the supercenter.
What hasn't expired is a five-year development agreement that the city and Wal-Mart both signed on April 4, 2005. Some residents who have opposed the supercenter want the City Commission to cancel the development agreement now — to wipe the slate clean of the last vestige of the city's previous support of the supercenter — and not wait for it to expire in April 2010.
However, SB 360 stands in the way. Its provision extending all development agreements another two years seems to apply. City commissioners asked City Attorney Jim Yacavone to research that issue, which is easier said than done, since much of SB 360 is confusing or has not been tested.
At last week's City Commission meeting, commissioners admitted they needed more information, not only about SB 360, but also about the pros and cons of canceling a development agreement.
A development agreement is essentially a set of promises made by a developer and a local government when a new project is planned. The agreements usually state what each side will do in order to advance the project. Development agreements are used by local governments to extract from developers concessions and extras not required by local codes.
The development agreement between Wal-Mart and Tarpon Springs requires Wal-Mart to jump through extra hoops and provide the public with a number of amenities on the riverfront property, including deeding some wetlands to the city for a natural area that the public and wildlife could enjoy.
While it seems illogical to preserve a development agreement tied to a project with no valid site plan or building permits, the commission should proceed cautiously. It is not clear whether the city could require Wal-Mart to sign a new development agreement if the existing one is canceled — another matter commissioners asked Yacavone to research. If the city cannot compel Wal-Mart to negotiate a new agreement, and the company could develop the site anyway, it is better to retain the existing agreement.
That is, unless the Legislature's gift to developers like Wal-Mart makes the whole matter moot.