Florida Hometown Democracy: Just deserts

Back in 1909, the Florida Legislature designated the orange blossom as the state’s sweet image to the world. In recognition of the important role of conversion of farmland to suburbia to the state’s economy, the Legislature ought to consider renaming the state flower, “runaway sprawl.”

Granted, it makes no sense to name a phenomenon as a flower, but there is not much about sprawl that makes sense to taxpayers, for whom the costs of growth keep piling up. And because our elected officials refuse to account for those costs, it is no surprise that a citizens’ movement is gaining traction in the form of a ballot initiative proposed by Florida Hometown Democracy.

An army of citizen volunteers wielding clipboards, petitions and pens—attending bake sales, sporting events, and going door-to-door—are striving to collect enough qualified signatures for a statewide vote to change how local government makes decisions on planning for communities.

The constitutional amendment proposed by Florida Hometown Democracy would require that changes to local development plans first be approved by voters. Whatever one feels about direct democracy, state and local government have utterly failed to account for the full costs of sprawl.

In an urbanized Florida, unremitting traffic congestion, inadequate schools, a declining quality of life and environment have stirred up a hornet’s nest of public resentment.

Seasoned observers believe the Florida Hometown Democracy ballot initiative—which could appear in the 2006 election—has a good chance of winning. That’s why gobs of time were spent by Florida’s Republican-led Legislature earlier this year trying to stop it.

Citizens who have committed the energy and otherwise tried to influence the design and growth of their communities don’t need more evidence that elected officials are strongly on the side of sprawl. Public forums, like planning and zoning commissions, for instance, are more often than not intimidating places.

Citizens who object to specific projects have to run a gantlet of professional lobbyists and consultants, usually lacking sufficient funds to hire experts of their own. Civic participation in the state administrative-court process can impose harsh costs, too.

Special interests who fund political campaigns—mainly tied to sprawl—tell officials they want things to be as they are—but only more so. And recent sessions of the Florida Legislature have provided sprawl-boosters the opportunity to further whack the piñata of basic citizen rights.

Too bad for Florida. The smart-growth movement, gaining momentum in other parts of the nation, desperately needs stronger support in Florida. Today, permitting more sprawl in Florida has as much logic as planting kudzu to add variety in the backyard garden.

A rigorous and comprehensive strategy to manage growth in Florida would:
·  Link construction permitting with the availability of affordable drinking water, now and in the future.
·  Strongly prioritize incentives to redevelop existing service areas with clear, prohibitive policies halting growth in outlying areas.
·  Adequately fund the purchase of development rights for lands identified as environmentally sensitive.
·  Create park and recreational lands adequate to the needs of all urban residents.
·  Benefit from a new state administrative court dedicated solely to adjudicating complex land-use issues.

Many of these measures exist partially or to a limited degree in state regulations, but in recent decades, the cumulative effect of steady erosion by special interests has been so cutting that what remains of the growth management in Florida has as much substance as electric-utility plants in Iraq stripped of copper pipes and cable.

New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote of global climate change, “We continue to live in the assumption that we can ride out the changes without changing ourselves, coasting, as we have always coasted, on the historic wave of human development. What it will take to wake us up is a wave of equal size traveling in the opposite direction. That wave is already on its way.”

In our state, where a similar force is required to stop the costs of runaway growth from overwhelming taxpayers, Florida Hometown Democracy is on its way.

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