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Dry subject, but lively debate

If there's a law against mallard ducks soiling the posh Peabody Hotel lobby, officials meeting here Friday were too busy debating government regulation to notice.

While the ducks _ the hotel's trademark _ entertained long lines of guests, growth management experts tried to determine whether government is a Florida landowner's friend or foe. Gov. Lawton Chiles' veto of a controversial bill last week sparked the debate.

In the name of "public good," government can abuse its regulatory powers, said Wade Hopping, an influential lobbyist for bigtime developers.

"Without paying me any money, (government) tells me I can't use my land and therefore it becomes sacred habitat of the black bear," Hopping told a room filled mostly with county officials.

Somebody has to be Florida's watchdog, answered Steve Pfeiffer, general counsel for the Department of Community Affairs.

"The more we developed in Florida, the behinder we were getting" in providing adequate roads, garbage dumps and a safe water supply, he said.

"We were basically poisoning ourselves, getting to the point where eventually we would live knee-deep in our own waste," Pfeiffer said.

And so it was that the regulator and the regulated couldn't agree on "private property rights," the title of a bill passed last session by legislators who endorsed radical change to environmental laws and development regulations.

The bill called for a commission to study this proposal: When the value of property depreciates by 40 percent or more because of zoning or growth management restrictions, the landowner could sue. Local government would have to reimburse the landowner not only for the lost value, but also for attorneys fees.

Critics said that almost any government action would lead to expensive lawsuits.

Chiles vetoed the bill, saying the study's conclusion was "already determined" because the commission was heavily weighted with growth management foes. He created his own commission _ a more objective group, he said _ to study property rights.

The debate Friday was part of the Florida Association of Counties' annual conference.

"Eventually growth management could bankrupt local government," said debate moderator Steve Seibert, a Pinellas County commissioner.

That might explain why everybody in the room was so interested in what can otherwise be a dull subject.

The biggest winners under the proposal would be large landowners and developers. But the issue has struck a chord in Florida's "heartland" as well, Seibert said.

"For Pinellas Park and Lutz and Citrus County and a lot of folks," he said, government regulation "has gotten out of control." To make even minor changes on a piece of property, an owner must run a gantlet of agencies, Seibert said.

Who's to blame?

Lawyers, said Charles Siemon, who got the biggest applause of the debate. Florida's regulatory laws are too complicated, he said.

New Jersey has the most "draconian" growth management laws, but the entire plan for seven counties and 52 cities is a third the size of the regulatory plan for just Palm Beach County, Siemon said.

"What's wrong with Florida planning and zoning?" he said. "We've taken the planners and thrown them out the window. Planning in this state is now traffic engineers and lawyers."

And yet, said Seibert, who is a lawyer, determining property's lost value should be left to the courts, as it now is, "rather than to the fluctuations of the political process."

Whatever the outcome of the debate, taxpayers should pay attention. It is taxpayers, everyone agreed, who will pick up the tab.