1. Opinion

Column: Agriculture commissioner should protect rural Florida

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Published Apr. 25, 2018

If all of the people moving to Florida were to locate in the same place, we would create a city the size of Tampa every year. Not just this year or next, but every year for as long as you and I can hope to live.

Every year, we lose nearly 200,000 acres to development — and this has been going on for a long time. Too many people are here already, and too many new people are going to arrive.

Saying such a thing draws strange reactions. Those who have only recently arrived wonder what all the fuss is about because Florida is so much nicer than where they came from. It's too bad they don't know how much better things used to be, but those who have been here for decades know what I mean.

The story of Florida has been one of ever-expanding asphalt and concrete, but it doesn't have to be this way. There is much we could do if we had the political will. A personal income tax, higher property taxes, limits on immigration … these are all things that would likely reduce the number of people moving to Florida, but does anyone really think such things will happen?

No, these ideas and others like them are not likely to pass, and even if they did the best we could hope for is that the growth rate would slow. No matter how concerted the effort, our state will continue to see net population gains.

So what do we do?

First, growth should be forced to go up, not out. The days of creating essentially new cities in rural areas must stop. Urban infill and multi-story, city residential dwellings must become the favored growth model. Cities can't keep allowing developers to take the next adjacent 40 acres to become the next cookie-cutter subdivision without real planning and thought.

Next, we should charge a Cabinet-level elected official — the Florida commissioner of agriculture — with preserving as much of what remains of rural Florida as possible. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs would be reorganized to become just the Florida Department of Agriculture, and it would have one primary mission: to save what remains of rural Florida.

The commissioner would trade away all of consumer affairs' responsibilities for anything rural if it affects land. There is no time for the commissioner to be concerned with things like making sure a dollar's worth of gasoline results in a dollar's worth of gasoline pumped, or the enforcement of telephone Do Not Call laws. There are other offices, like the Florida attorney general's, that can administer these programs.

In return, anything that affects the preservation of agricultural land and undeveloped spaces would go through the commissioner of agriculture. Who better to stop the loss of land to development than the person charged with making sure there is land to be farmed and ranched? Put a statewide elected official on the hook for keeping Florida green, and you'll have a much better chance of seeing it happen.

Finally and most important, it would be the commissioner's legal charge to see that statutory conservation goals are achieved. With this responsibility would come the authority to implement full funding for Amendment 1, a landmark conservation measure passed by the voters that has been largely ignored by the Legislature and the governor.

Someone needs to become the state's primary advocate for sufficient conservation funding, protection of farm and ranch land, and smart growth. I've suggested that it be the Florida commissioner of agriculture because most of our undeveloped land is agricultural in nature and landowners trust the Office of the Commissioner of Agriculture. A proper balance and healthy tension would form between the commissioner, who would be charged with protecting rural Florida from outward growth, and the governor, who would be responsible for other objectives such as a healthy economy.

It's easy to find reasons to be against a significant policy proposal such as this, but one thing is certain: If Florida's population continues to go out instead of up, sprawling from coast to coast, and if there is not a Cabinet-level official charged with preventing it, in 20 years there won't be much of a commercial agricultural base left to support.

Rick Dantzler is a former member of the Florida House and Senate, and he served as the state executive director of the Farm Service Agency during President Barack Obama's second term. He is an attorney in Winter Haven.