DeSantis has a chance to manage Florida's growth wisely and protect its environment

The sun sets in the Everglades just east of Naples as seen from the Tamiami Trail. About 1,000 people a day are once again moving to Florida, but the new governor has a chance to balance development with preserving the environment and dealing with the effects of climate change. [AP file photo by J. Pat Carter]
The sun sets in the Everglades just east of Naples as seen from the Tamiami Trail. About 1,000 people a day are once again moving to Florida, but the new governor has a chance to balance development with preserving the environment and dealing with the effects of climate change. [AP file photo by J. Pat Carter]
Published Nov. 21, 2018

For months leading up to Florida's chaotic midterm elections, incoming Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis clashed with challengers over race, schools, the economy, toxic algae and "California-style energy policy."

As DeSantis takes office as the state's 46th governor in January, the issue underlying those and so many others is Florida's surging population growth and its spillover effects from pollution to overcrowded schools.

Florida's net growth has reached nearly 1,000 people a day, a rate not seen since the early 2000s. Unlike the last surge of that magnitude, Florida is absorbing newcomers without the growth-management system built in earlier generations — and amid the rising seas of climate change few people thought about back then.

Growth has been Florida's grand paradox for all of the state's modern history, creating prosperity and opportunity as well as ecological injury that threatens the quality of life that drew us here in the first place. And every modern Florida governor has confronted growth-related challenges, with varying degrees of leadership and success.

Gov. DeSantis faces a set of circumstances even more daunting than those that confronted Gov. Bob Graham in the 1980s, when the national press claimed Florida was "going down the tubes." That 1981 Sports Illustrated headline declared "There's Trouble in Paradise." A Time magazine cover that same year called South Florida "Paradise Lost."

From the state's Everglades restoration successes to considerable land acquisitions achieved since then, Florida has a record of "big, hairy, audacious ideas," as Gov. Jeb Bush used to say, to confront its most-serious challenges.

But contrasting earlier eras, today's growth pressures are spread throughout much more of the peninsula, and are already amplified by climate change. Florida stands to lose more homes and more real-estate value to sea rise than any other state in the nation. Hurricane Michael underscored Florida's vulnerability to the weather extremes climate scientists predict will become more frequent with warming. These threats mean Florida's interior counties could see unprecedented growth as more coastal dwellers migrate inland.

The state's largest landowners, such as Plum Creek/Weyerhaeuser in North Florida and Deseret Ranch in Central Florida, are keenly aware of these trends and have planned for the transition of forest and cattle lands to rooftops for decades. Yet just as Florida's growth and interior development take off, the state under Gov. Rick Scott backed off its role in planning major new developments, including requirements for adequate schools, roads, sewage disposal and other resources to balance economic prosperity with quality of life.

Growth has been a litmus test for every modern Florida governor since the mid-1950s, when a nationwide drought crept down the peninsula, revealing the state's vulnerability to water shortages one year and hurricanes the next. By the late 1960s, political leaders inspired by Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew and Republican conservation leader Nathaniel Reed agreed that growth could not continue unplanned, lest it ruin the fragile natural beauty that makes Florida, Florida.

Askew led Floridians to adopt the strongest land, planning and water-use laws in the nation in 1972. As the state grew quickly through the 1970s and '80s, though, it became clear that they were not sufficient to handle the traffic gridlock, the overtaxed sewer systems and the strip-mall sprawl.

Graham's response was a bipartisan coalition charged with "questions of excellence: How can we make growth be of the highest quality, to most contribute to our lives and to the future of our state?" The answer was a statewide system of growth management. Like the land and water laws of an earlier era, it was the vanguard in the nation.

Various overhauls have reflected developers' and local governments' frustration with the state bureaucracy. Upon winning office in 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush kept his promise to target land acquisition as the best strategy to protect the environment, shepherding in the popular Florida Forever program. By purchasing, or negotiating conservation easements on large tracts of environmentally sensitive land statewide, Bush "accomplished more in driving growth to the appropriate places than in any other statewide policy," says his former Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, Steve Seibert.

As he takes office, DeSantis has an unparalleled opportunity to rally Floridians and the business community to face the state's growth-related challenges. The surprise election of Fort Lauderdale Democrat Nikki Fried as agriculture commissioner gives the pair a rare platform to convene thought leaders from both parties, and from urban and rural Florida, to reach consensus on the audacious ideas needed to clean up Florida's water today while preserving our last wildlands and the heritage crops now falling to rooftops.

Will DeSantis sidestep growth, letting Florida continue to develop haphazardly in ways that put quality of life and natural treasures at risk? Or will he step into the shoes of governors such as Bush, Graham and Askew to bring lawmakers from both parties, science and policy leaders, local governments and citizens together to address the big "questions of excellence" for all Floridians?

We hope he will choose the latter path. But as governor, DeSantis should push beyond the past. He should articulate a bold vision for Florida's future and make it the centerpiece of his first-term agenda. Progress won't be easy or rapid. But with sustained commitment and willingness to listen and learn from all sides, Gov. DeSantis can return Florida to its stature as a national leader in shaping growth that benefits both people and our state's gorgeous, but ailing, environment.

David Colburn is director and Cynthia Barnett is an environmental fellow at the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Leadership.