Amendment 4, the so-called "Hometown Democracy" amendment to the Florida Constitution on the Nov. 2 ballot, sounds appealing to voters coping with urban sprawl and traffic jams while irresponsible state legislators gut growth management laws. They may believe the amendment would empower them to put a lid on undesirable development in their communities. But Amendment 4 would make things worse by creating haphazard development patterns, shifting more influence to monied special interests, spawning expensive lawsuits and undercutting recovery from the recession. The state needs to better manage growth, but this amendment is not the answer.
Amendment 4 results from a petition drive by Florida Hometown Democracy Inc., co-founded by Palm Beach land use attorney Lesley Blackner and Tallahassee environmental attorney Ross Burnaman. They argue government has done such a bad job of controlling growth that voters should be put in charge. It's hard to disagree with their conclusion even if their solution is wrong.
Amendment 4 would give voters veto power over changes to a city or county "comprehensive land use plan," though there is disagreement about whether that refers to their comprehensive plans or their future land use plans. But these plans are highly technical documents that can be hundreds of pages long. They are meant to be living documents that are amended as a community grows and its vision of its future shifts. But under Amendment 4, even a single word change or slight modification to a map would have to go to voters for approval.
Amendment 4 would not let residents halt all development in their communities, even if they wished to, because they would vote only on projects requiring a comprehensive plan change. Projects designed within the parameters of the existing plan — typically the vast majority — would need only government approval.
However, Amendment 4 likely would discourage developers from pursuing projects that required a plan amendment, even projects a community might desire. It would lengthen the approval process and increase developers' costs and risk. Developers who survived the already lengthy government approval process could wait up to two more years for the next regularly scheduled election, and then voters might say no. It is easy to see why developers might decide to build their projects in another state, which could imperil Florida's recovery from the recession.
But if the developer chose to take on the challenge, what should be an orderly, fact-based planning process would be distorted into a political campaign. Residents who opposed a project — and who currently must persuade only their local officials to take their side — would have to convince thousands of voters, too. And they would be up against deep-pocketed developers more easily able to afford sophisticated campaigns to sway voters.
How would voters reach their decisions about plan changes? Would they study their comprehensive plan to understand the ballot question? Would they utilize planning principles such as compatibility that foster orderly growth? That's asking a lot, and uninformed decisions could lead to bizarre development patterns, conflicting land uses and court challenges.
St. Pete Beach provides the closest thing Florida has to a test of Amendment 4-type regulation. It has been a disaster in that city, resulting in lawsuits, soaring legal bills for taxpayers and a standstill on development. That's the future facing other communities if Amendment 4 passes.
This is not a path to better growth management in Florida. The St. Petersburg Times recommends a "no" vote on Amendment 4.