Counterpunch: The governor and the growth machine… on cruise control into a ditch

It is the battle for the soul of Florida: whether Floridians will have a vote on changes to land use plans that turned the state into the poster-child for collapsed housing markets. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and the growth machine have pledged to spend $65 million–or whatever it takes–to defeat the citizen referendum that is closing in on the number of voter signatures to quality for a state-wide ballot.

In an interview with the editor of the Florida Northwest Daily News, Governor Charlie Crist (Rep.) may have inadvertently boosted the misinformation against the citizen’s iniative, Florida Hometown Democracy:

He said, “… in terms of Hometown Democracy, and how that affects us in our future, (I think) that if you have to have a permit for every single new business that wants to go up, and you have to have a vote of all the people in order to get it accomplished, that can slow down things tremendously and therefore maybe thwart the opportunity for economic growth and new jobs coming into the state, and it concerns me in a significant way.”

Is Governor Crist on the wrong side of facts, deliberately or simply because he had a bad day? When enough voters sign petitions (print out your petition here) to qualify for the ballot, Floridians will have a chance to vote on a simple measure: new changes to comprehensive development plans that have already been approved by local government will first go to voters, then to local government.

Florida is the abject example of growth gone haywire, and the responsibility lies squarely with elected officials who benefit each and every time the true costs of growth are deferred. Now that the building boom is in cinders, the results are plain as day.

But don’t count on newspaper executives, whose bonuses may be tied to advertising page revenue increases, to shed much light. “I would agree,” says the newspaper editor from the region where massive new developments are being primed that could accomodate millions of new residents to Florida when finally demand returns to collapsed housing markets.

“That’s what you have your local officials for is to review those different changes to the land development code, the growth management act. Under (a hometown democracy) amendment, you’d have to have a referendum for that. And I think that’s what you have elected representatives for.”

Let recent experiences in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest county, inform Governor Crist who worries that Florida Hometown Democracy will require “a permit for every single new business that wants to go up”. That is simply untrue.

In Miami, unlike northwest Florida, the growth machine has already left behind the detritus of suburban sprawl for 2 million residents and taxpayers funneled into unabsorbed costs as meekly as cattle in a factory farm.

Here, in the 2005 round of applications by developers and land owners to move the Urban Development Boundary—which required new changes to the county land use plan—citizens were forced into a multi-year game of cat-and-mouse with the growth machine, tended by land use lawyers, engineering consultants, and an army of lobbyists who long-ago corralled a majority of county commissioners through bundled campaign contributions.

It is all well and good for high public officials to praise volunteers and giving back to the community (as President Clinton apparently does, in his new book, ‘Giving’), but the Florida example of democracy in 2007–as it relates to growth–makes a mockery of “giving”.

It is draining, demoralizing, and frustrating for homeowners, taxpayers, and even some business interests when the outcome of changes to land use plans is predetermined by the influence of big campaign contributors from developers, land speculators, and big farmers.

By all means, let Governor Crist (and newspaper editors) spend a couple of years trundling down the road to changes to the land use plans, strewn with virtual IED’s by the growth machine. See what ordinary people face in the daily struggle to protect communities from unsustainable development.

Giving citizens the right to vote on new changes to comprehensive land use plans before local elected officials do redresses the imbalance that has ruined representative government in Florida because of the outsized influence of building and construction.

It is wrong to suggest that the balance between the environment and the economy is what is at issue in the Florida Hometown Democracy movement. It is about respect for fiscal responsibility. It is about the soul of Florida.

The building and development industry–its greed, excesses, coupled with strong-arm tactics by state and local legislatures contributed mightily to the housing bubble and the costs the bubble’s burst has imposed on Florida taxpayers.

In 2005, a majority of county commissioners in Miami-Dade County would have voted to approve each and every amendment to the county comprehensive development plan outside the urban growth boundary, despite overwhelming objection by citizens.

What counted, then, wasn’t the law–and the legal challenges that citizens would have been forced to mount–but slick powerpoint presentations that confidently predicted endless demand for suburbia.

Only quiet intervention by the State of Florida, related to concerns about the availability of fresh water, stopped these amendments.

Because local legislatures are controlled by political contributions from the growth machine, because people don’t have the time or financial resources to spend years, time after time, addressing the same applications for ill-advised development, the land use planning process has turned into a a fifth grade school play, with all the stock characters in their bad costumes, a marathon contest whose results are indelibly etched in the built landscape of Florida.

Right now, in Miami-Dade County, the real cost of infrastructure deficits because growth does not pay its own way is close to $10 billion. It is a number that elected officials won’t talk about and newspapers won’t print.

But every day, citizens in Miami experience that number through gummed-up roadways, classrooms for children in air-conditioned trailers, unkempt and inadequate parks and playing fields, pollution, degraded wetlands and a declining quality of life.

This isn’t a “gloomy point of view”. This is reality. The $10 billion that the growth machine won’t talk about represents the imposition of an unfunded mandate on Miami-Dade taxpayers. But local elected officials won’t talk about that unfunded mandate, the one imposed by unsustainable growth.

Why should the people of Florida acquiesce to the fiscal irresponsibility that is at the heart of the growth machine’s objection to Florida Hometown Democracy?

The reasons to support Florida Hometown Democracy are all around us: the highest foreclosure rates in history, housing inventories so saturated that it will take years to absorb, degraded wetlands and public corruption.

Let the people vote on new changes to comprehensive land use plans that local elected officials have already approved.

Give the people of Florida a hand to democracy, Governor Crist. We know it is possible. We have faith.

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