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For a better environment // Nibbling at growth controls

It's Back to the Future time.

That's what supporters of Florida's landmark act for managing future development, now 11 years old, are saying. What initially appeared to be a tame state legislative session for growth management now looks like yet another round of threats to the embattled law, its defenders say.

Their biggest worry for the moment: A plan being hatched by Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay and the Florida League of Cities. It proposes a "Super Cities" pilot project that would let select cities conduct development business with little if any state oversight. They could plan their growth, regulate the environment and oversee their pension plans.

"My goodness, that is back to the future; it takes us all back to where we were two or three decades ago," says land-use attorney Tom Pelham, the former Department of Community Affairs secretary who shepherded the Growth Management Act through Gov. Bob Martinez' administration. "Inevitably, it would be business as usual. One of the major reasons for enacting the growth management legislation was that local governments and local citizens standing alone had not been able to withstand the everyday growth and development pressures."

The Growth Management Act of 1985 required cities and counties to submit comprehensive blueprints for their future to the state DCA. The plans were required to make sure that necessary roads, sewers and other services were in place before new development occured. It empowered the DCA to challenge local plans that couldn't show how the cities and counties would cope with growth they were approving.

MacKay, the point man on growth management for Gov. Lawton Chiles, has assigned the governor's budget director to work on the Super City proposal. The proposal could advance the Chiles/MacKay administration's themes of reducing state regulations to foster economic development and giving more control to local governments.

"It's the idea that we would enter into different relationships with cities that are willing to operate at a higher standard and are willing to discipline themselves," MacKay says. "A joint state and local task force has been meeting to see if there's a way we could actually delegate environmental permitting and growth management to those local governments who are willing to adhere to very clearly stated goals and standards and outcomes."

The ultimate goal, MacKay says, is to let responsible cities return to home rule.

Super Cities is akin to recommendations from the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, says Jim Murley, who heads up the state's planning agency as DCA secretary. But other participants in that project disagree.

Sustainable South Florida recommends the Legislature adopt a regional approach to planning decisions in South Florida, develop coordinated and integrated water resource plans and establish urban development boundaries. It gives more flexibility to areas that meet state standards.

"I am concerned that this proposal seems to directly contradict the spirit and specific recommendations of the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida," says Christopher McVoy, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit national organization that tries to help solve environmental problems. "People who have too much of a local vested interest are under too much pressure to make the right decisions."

Environmentalists and land planners generally like the Sustainable South Florida plan. Unlike the cities/MacKay plan, it's not a carte blanche transfer of state regulatory oversight to a Super City.

"That's just the state turning its back and saying we're going to leave it to you to do exactly as you please," Pelham says. "I just don't think in a state that is as environmentally sensitive as this is that it can work."

Though the Super City plan seeks broad local government discretion, another proposal seeks to give cities and counties a little more lattitude in approving development zoning.

Cities and counties are lobbying for the Legislature to expand their recently granted authority to approve small changes to their state-approved comprehensive plans for growth. The local governments want to be able to increase land development zones without the state having to approve. Currently, they have the authority so long as the zoning changes involve 10 acres or less, and 10 or fewer units per acre. The new proposal calls for a 60-acre annual threshold.

The Florida Association of Counties is pushing for no limit on the number of small-scale amendements a local government could approve each year. Critics fear that could result in a lot of small-scale zoning changes that would add up to vast changes to future growth plans.

The flip side of the "small amendment" plan is the Development of Regional Impact. Major commercial and residential development are now subject to the DRI, an intensive planning review, and developers have criticized it as being too costly and burdensome. But after a study commission and the Legislature spent long hours looking at getting rid of DRIs, a surprising consensus emerged: Back to the Future again. DRIs amounted to a lot less bureaucracy and red tape than anything else they could come up with.

"Even the development community came back and said we'd rather have DRIs," DCA's Murley said.

Property rights

Despite persistent rumors around Tallahassee that property rights advocates will try again this year to force governments to pay landowners whenever regulations diminish property value, the critics and supporters of last year's compromise law say they don't expect any new legislation. And they don't expect any serious attempt to change last year's law.

Key sponsors of the 1995 law, which gives landowners a chance for compensation under certain conditions, are still boasting about their victory. Unmistakably, the law already is having the effect that was predicted by its critics: It is causing cities and counties, large and small, to give in to the development demands of landowners.

"Chilling is a mild word to use to describe the effect it has had," says Rep. Ken Pruitt, R-St. Lucie, one of the act's prime sponsors. "I would say absolutely frost-bitten or frozen is a better way to describe its effect. It has forced bureaucrats to take a step back and think before they act. It is taking those who would deny somebody the use of their land and it has stopped them in their tracks."

The most dramatic example has occurred in Palm Beach County, where officials did an about-face when confronted with the property rights legislation. They dropped plans to extend development restrictions into a 20,000-acre agricultural area.

Other smaller, though significant, examples are beginning to emerge, says Jane Hayman, deputy general counsel for the Florida League of Cities, which opposed the bill.

"The city of Tampa had an example where a property owner came forward and wanted to develop a vested use in Hyde Park," Hayman said. "In their heart of hearts, city officials felt the use didn't fit in with the scheme of the traffic flow the city was trying to address in that congested area. They probably would have denied it but for the property rights fact."

Florida's property rights law, which only became fully effective Oct. 1, says landowners must negotiate with the state or local government that took action against their land before seeking damages for loss of property rights. The government then must consider alternate uses for the property. If negotiations fail, a circuit judge determines whether the government has imposed an "inordinate burden" on the landowner. A jury then decides how much money the landowner should be compensated. That part of the act applies to laws and regulations approved after the Legislature adjourned last year.

The second part applies to all laws, old and new. It allows landowners to take complaints to special masters, who try to make governments negotiate. This informal process is designed to cut down on lawsuits.

A last-minute amendment written last year by Tallahassee lobbyist Wade Hopping for large landholders and big business owners expands the law to allow landowners to seek compensation for "reasonable, foreseeable, non-speculative" future land uses. Those land uses must be compatible with adjacent uses and create an "existing fair market value in the property greater than the fair market value of the actual, present use."

Critics say the confusing amendment amounts to a trick. They fear it actually will permit landowners to be compensated for speculative purposes.

So far, not a single case has worked its way through the process, says DCA's Murley and others closely monitoring the process.

Those who fought the 1995 law say they still think it is going to harm community land planning and hurt governments already strapped for money. But they also say they fear something worse. They say any effort to change the act might result in its further expansion. (Meanwhile, a constitutional initiative that would make it more far-reaching is working its way across the state.)

"Quite frankly," says Kari Hebrank, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties, "if we go back in there, local government stands to lose."

Elizabeth Willson is a Times staff writer.