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Got a gripe with rules for growth? Speak up

Department of Community Affairs officials are traveling the state to solicit ideas on growth management.

Florida's Growth Management Act has been controversial since its inception in the mid-1980s. Some developers thought the law went too far; some environmentalists thought it didn't go far enough.

Now, some 15 years after the law hit the books, Department of Community Affairs Secretary Steve Seibert is considering some major changes.

But before he proposes any such changes, he wants to hear from the people.

That's why Seibert, many of his staff members and 120 or so other people found their way to an auditorium on Central Florida Community College's campus here Tuesday afternoon. The Growth Management Act was up for discussion, and people had plenty to say.

Helen Spivey, the noted Citrus County environmentalist and former state representative, said the state should strengthen its oversight efforts in cases where the cumulative effect of growth and its accompanying infrastructure will harm fragile ecosystems.

Does Spivey support any lessening of the state's power? Sure, but only in land-use decisions that only affect a specific neighborhood, and only if the law is sufficiently changed to allow residents reasonable access to _ and understanding of _ the regulatory system.

Such access doesn't exist today, Spivey told the crowd. "Their only defense is to hire a lawyer to interpret," she said of citizens.

Seibert has heard from plenty of people in recent days, and he will hear from plenty more in the coming weeks. The secretary has set out on a statewide fact-finding mission, opening the microphone to developers and environmentalists alike.

Some people will prefer to discuss issues near to their own hearts and homes; that certainly was the case Tuesday, when many people referenced a controversial planned development slated for construction on State Road 200 near Interstate 75.

But Seibert also wants to hear comments about the Growth Management Act and what it has meant for Florida.

The law was designed to help counties and cities manage growth. Each municipality must create and regularly update a comprehensive growth plan that spells out what kind of development is appropriate in certain areas, and what sorts of infrastructure needs such development would bring.

State review of such plans is necessary.

Seibert said his staff during the past three years reviewed 35,000 land-use amendments. "It was a tremendous burden," he said.

His solution: "Push to the local level that which is local . . . hold to the state that which is the state's."

Those sentiments fell on many sympathetic ears Tuesday. Among the most prominent supporters of such philosophy was state Rep. George Albright, R-Ocala, who is leading efforts to reform the state's growth management policy.

Though well intentioned, he said, the laws have served "to stop growth and slow growth in a perverse fashion."