Florida is in a relentless competition to attract and retain high-end businesses and the talent that supports them.
Our quiver includes some common fiscal arrows — low taxes, less regulation and, in some cases, loads of taxpayer-funded incentives.
Of course, luring and nourishing businesses is not all about finances. Quality of life matters. That can mean good schools, easy weather, robust transit or a vibrant arts and entertainment community.
It also means outdoor places to play. Places to canoe or spot an alligator. Places that keep our water clean. Places to bag a deer or catch a trout. Places that you may never visit but are glad won’t be covered in concrete.
In 2014, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to use a slice of existing real estate taxes to preserve environmentally sensitive land and water resources. Few likely voted for it as a way to keep us globally competitive. Even so, it could help do just that.
A decade from now, another 5 million people could be living here, according to some forecasts. That’s more than the entire state of Alabama. By 2030, the population could exceed 26 million, more than everyone who currently lives in Australia.
Some of your new neighbors will happily live in the condo towers going up in our downtowns. But many will want a single family home on their own quarter acre of paradise.
Just look at Hillsborough County, east of Sun City Center. Twenty years ago, it was mostly small towns, farms and wilderness. Now development creeps up State Road 674 and Balm Road. Further north, home builders have broken ground east of the upscale FishHawk Ranch community, which basically didn’t exist 20 years ago. How soon before it’s all at the doorstep of Alafia River State Park?
Developers will happily oblige our dreams, buying more farmland or pushing further into Florida’s limited wilderness. Who can blame them. It’s what they do. Beside, they can only do it because our elected officials let them.
That’s why 75 percent — 75 percent! — of voters wanted the state to use $300 million a year to buy up land. Unlike so many of our legislators, they understood that we need government to lead on this. The private sector is better at a lot of things, but the voters don’t trust it to protect the land that needs protecting.
So far, however, the state Legislature has thwarted the voters’ will. In four years, it has used the pot of money to buy nearly no new parcels. In fact, it has used tax dollars to pay for lawyers to fight off lawsuits from groups that want the state to preserve more land. Is your head spinning yet?
It’s a showcase in short-sightedness. In 30 years, it won’t be easy for the future governor or members of the Legislature to lure or cultivate the next Apple or Microsoft if the state’s wilderness is covered in six-lane roads, parking lots and tract housing.
Many of the high-skilled jobs of the future — the ones that every state covets — will just as easily be done from Denver as Tampa, Salt Lake City as St. Petersburg. If we can’t offer an appealing lifestyle, including easy access to outdoor pursuits, we’ll lose the race for businesses and workers more often than we win.
And there aren’t many do-overs on the environment. Preserve it now or spend a lot more money recapturing it later.
This is not an argument to buy up every plot of land in sight. There has to be a balance. We have to have room for more homes and more development. But it’s myopic to think that curtailing building in some vital areas will adversely affect the economy. In the long run, it will have the opposite effect. It will make us more desirable to the companies and people who we want to attract and the ones we want to keep.
Contact Graham Brink at [email protected] Follow @GrahamBrink.