A developer's dream 

Kim LaFleur is the last guy you'd expect to be in league with Doug Guetzloe's anti-sales-tax crusades. LaFleur is a slow-growth activist, a lifelong Democrat and the father of a Cheney Elementary second-grader. He understands the need for good schools and money to pay for them.

Nonetheless he loaded up his eye-catching 1961 Willys Jeep with "Ax the Tax" signs this summer and paraded around town to convince Orange County voters to kill the sales-tax initiative on the Sept. 10 ballot. LaFleur's not cheap, and he doesn't deny that the school district needs money. Nor does he oppose tax increases in general. In fact, he believes Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature have seriously underfunded education, and supports a multi-billion dollar amendment to the Florida Constitution that would limit class sizes.

The problem, he says, is that the sales tax is a giveaway to developers who long to pave over Central Florida with zero-lot-line tract-housing and strip malls. And with its passage, the door is now open for them to do it.

"It wasn't for the children," LaFleur says. "People were snookered into this. It wasn't really for the kids, it was for developers."

For nearly three years developers have had to contend with the so-called "Martinez plan." Named for former Orange County chairman and current U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Mel Martinez, the plan essentially blocks new developments near overcrowded schools.

The plan isn't technically a law; the county commission never formally adopted it. Rather, it's a policy, an "instruction" to county-planning staffers that they reject rezoning that would aggravate school crowding. Commissioners aren't bound to follow it, but they have for the last three years. And according to school board spokeswoman Jackie Johnson, the Martinez plan has forced more than a few developers to compromise with school officials and pay their impact fees up front, instead of staggering them, so school officials could prepare itself for influxes of new kids.

So far the plan has survived two legal challenges from developers whose projects were denied in part because schools didn't have the money to keep up with growth. Portables were popping up like weeds; nearly all of the county's schools were over capacity.

Now, thanks to the sales tax which passed with 59 percent of the vote, the money to cope with added students is there. And soon the Martinez plan may not be. "I think `it's` almost dead," LaFleur says.

Developers, many of whom backed the sales-tax initiative with big contributions, couldn't be happier.

"I would expect to see the Martinez plan wither and die," says Tom Lagomarsino, director of the Homebuilders Association of Mid-Florida.

People like Lagomarsino have never liked the plan, because it's the biggest impediment to development in county history. Its inception marks one of the few instances in which local politicians stood up to the powerful homebuilders' groups that give generously at election time.

Developers argued that their property rights were being violated. They claimed that because they already pay impact fees that are among the highest in the state, Orange County should let them bulldoze at will. Public sentiment differed, however, and the Martinez plan made Mel a star in moderate Republican circles, paving his way to HUD and, if you believe the rumor mill, a bid for governor in 2006.

The plan has worked so well -- for everyone but the developers -- that earlier this year Martinez' successor, Orange County chairman Rich Crotty, pushed municipalities to copy it. To escape the restrictions, developers have flocked to neighboring Polk and Lake counties, remaking those formerly rural areas into suburban bedroom communities. Crotty wants those counties to embrace the plan in an effort to help Central Florida control decades-old growth problems.

But developers see things differently. Their donations made up a healthy chunk of the $456,247 taken in by pro-tax committee Change 4 Kids. The Homebuilders Association's political action committee alone contributed $10,000. Construction companies including Centex-Rooney, Turner Construction, Walker and Co., J. Thomas Chandler and Simcon Construction all gave $5,000 or more.

The return on their investment comes two ways: more construction contracts to bid on, and the removal of the school district's "we can't afford growth" objection, i.e. the Martinez plan.

Crotty isn't about to take the plan apart. "I think this thing is just about right for the time being," says the chairman, fresh off a resounding victory. "We shouldn't be trying to dismantle it or strengthen it either. We need to watch the progress, watch the courts, and maybe sometime down the road we'll revisit the policy. It isn't going to change for at least a few years."

And according to county attorney Tom Wilkes, the sales tax actually strengthens the plan's legal status. Before the tax passed, developers whose projects got nixed were, in effect, simply told "no." Now that there's money to fix old schools and build new ones, they'll be told "wait." Courts will probably be sympathetic to that, says Wilkes.

Over time, Wilkes predicts the county will wean itself of the Martinez plan. If there's a proposal near a soon-renovated school, the county will likely approve it. If the renovation is three years away, the county will tell the developer to come back in three years.

LaFleur is uncomfortable with even the threat of a weaker Martinez plan. New development brings new highways, which bring sprawl to environmentally sensitive areas like the Econlockhatchee and Wekiva river basins. If the county and schools give developers the green light, what's left of Central Florida's natural beauty will vanish forever.

"We need to focus on growth, smart growth," LaFleur says. "In the past, we didn't have any restraints on builders. It's time we hold firm and keep a steady course. We've really opened up Pandora's box. It's just a matter of time."

And it's up to county leaders to prove him wrong.



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