Growth and sprawl on the march

Published July 1, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott's vision of Florida's economic future looks a lot like its past: heavily dependent on grand-scale development that creates sprawl and environmental damage but comes with no money to pay for the consequences. The Department of Transportation's revival of a six-year-old "Future Corridors" plan for major roads crossing interior Florida — along with the hiring of two prominent development executives to help make it happen — will tax water supplies, alter the character of rural Florida, and strip resources from urban transit needs.

DOT is spending $106,000 to have two consultants interview owners of large tracts of land about their development plans and how they might dovetail with Future Corridors, the plan championed under Gov. Jeb Bush but shelved by his successor, Gov. Charlie Crist. The consultants are Billy Buzzett, the last secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, who helped Scott and the Legislature disband the agency and undo decades of growth management laws; and Chris Corr, an executive vice president for development support company AECOM. Both are former executives with the St. Joe Co., the largest private landowner in the Panhandle, where the company has scaled back its plans for development because of the real estate collapse.

Buzzett and Corr are assigned this task under the DOT contract: Conduct up to 20 interviews with major landowners to determine their development plans and what, if any, changes are needed in state laws or regulations that would lead to agreements between the state and landowners in preparation for building the new roads.

Never mind that DOT should have plenty of resources to accomplish this goal without hiring a pair of political insiders. Never mind that DOT already says the only way it can expand highways or build bridges is to slap tolls on them. The message is clear. DOT may have signed the contract, but Buzzett and Corr are really working Scott's jobs agenda. One "Future Corridors" route, between Naples and Orlando, for example, has been pitched as being able to sustain 10 more towns. And while such growth will add construction jobs in the short term, it is being pursued with even less consideration than in the past as to the environmental and quality-of-life consequences for those communities and the entire state.

This isn't wholly a surprise. As Scott's DCA secretary, Buzzett helped pass legislation in 2011 gutting what remained of Florida's growth management laws, including changing water and transportation concurrency law to make it easier and less expensive for rural landowners to develop their land.

Now it's mostly up to local communities and their elected officials to apply any modicum of restraint on developers' ambitions — the same improbable scenario that sparked the approval of the state's growth management laws in 1985. Scott no longer wanted the state to have that authority, even though it certainly didn't squelch astronomical growth during its 26 years of existence. Yet the governor isn't above deploying well-financed Tallahassee insiders into those same communities with a mission biased toward unbridled growth. Just whose interests is the governor representing?