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DEVELOPING A MIDDLE GROUND

Before Hometown Democracy becomes the next full-assault ballot-box war in Florida, the state's development watchdog deserves to be heard. Tom Pelham, secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, is calling for a reasonable middle ground on managing growth, and he brings undeniable credibility to the debate.

The pitch by Pelham is that somewhere between the extremes of development-by-referendum and development-by-bureaucratic-wink-and-nod lies a solution that may help guide Florida's growth. He's on the right track as he recognizes the complaints without embracing the extreme response.

"If you follow the movement, you see that the heart of their complaint is that local governments amend their comprehensive plans too frequently," Pelham told the Times editorial board last week. "In my view, their solution is an extreme, draconian approach that would create very real problems. But we cannot ignore what's driving this. Plan amendments should be rare, not willy-nilly."

Pelham's credentials are relevant here. He served as DCA secretary in the late 1980s, at a time when growth-management laws were first being enacted. He was so vigorous in rejecting overly permissive city and county growth plans that he achieved folk-hero status among environmentalists and land planners.

Upon returning to the DCA in January as an appointee of Gov. Charlie Crist, Pelham has shown no signs of letting up. Already, he is challenging rural "stewardship" plans that could create new cities, questioning transportation formulas that lead to more urban sprawl and restoring a sense of professionalism to an agency that had become the developers' lapdog.

Pelham: "Saying no is not easy, but we think it's important for the credibility of the agency for it to begin to assert itself again."

The lack of such state oversight, arguably, has helped stoke the Hometown Democracy movement. But the group's solution is to require voter approval for any change to a local growth plan, which is simply unworkable. Predictably, business and development interests are fighting back, with one recent plea for donations invoking the specter of "utter devastation." Consultants are predicting a war chest in the order of $65-million if the initiative makes it to the ballot.

The problem, politically, is that no one is venturing to step into the cross-fire. Few in government have been willing to even acknowledge the problem.

Now, each city and county is required to guide development through a "comprehensive plan." Those plans, which were subjected to exhaustive local and state review, were designed to serve as a blue-print but have been treated like a rough draft. If a contractor wants to build a high-rise condo in a place reserved for small farms, no problem. The city council or county commission just changes the plan.

Pelham says he wants to stop unwarranted plan amendments and require that the blueprints be changed only sparingly. He also says he is willing to consider whether certain types of amendments should be subjected to a local referendum.

The question now is whether the combatants on the two sides of this age-old development struggle are willing to lay down their arms.

The fight already has twisted the state Constitution, with business interests having persuaded voters last year to increase the threshold for approval of new constitutional amendments to 60 percent of the vote instead of a simple majority. The builders may be able to defeat Hometown Democracy, but the people who are fed up with overcrowded highways and overflowing landfills will not quit trying.

Campaign combat only polarizes this debate, and Pelham is offering a promising alternative. Restore the intent of growth laws so ballot fights are no longer necessary.

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