Sprawling questions

When he took office last year, Jeb Bush overcame people's depictions of him as a real-estate developer who would eviscerate Florida's growth-management laws. The issue was one that Democratic challenger Buddy MacKay hit hard, asking during one radio debate, "Do we want a developer running state government in the state of Florida?"

That question is surfacing again.

The nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) recently posted internal communications on its website that it says suggest Bush is surreptitiously working with lawmakers and the chief of Florida's Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to gut the state's landmark Comprehensive Planning Act in the legislative session that opens March 7.

There's no doubt that Bush wants to change the act, some of the toughest anti-sprawl legislation in America. Bush, like many legislators, environmentalists, and business and civic leaders, isn't satisfied that the law works as it was intended. His solution is to hand over control to local governments, an idea environmentalists hate. Local control is precisely what prompted the Legislature to pass the current law in 1985, which imposes a system of regional review, so that local governments -- in theory -- cannot permit one major development after another, causing environmental consequences beyond their jurisdictions.

But Bush and DCA director Steven Seibert have said that mandates from Tallahassee only get in the way of preventing urban sprawl. Seibert told legislators last year that the growth-management system as it stands now "is a top-down rather than a bottom-up approach" and "rule-oriented rather than vision-oriented."

Publicly, the Bush administration is backing a bill by Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) seeking $250,000 to study Florida's growth-management system and "determine what, if any, adjustments are needed to assure ... a vibrant future." Recommended changes, then, would have to wait until at least after the 2001 legislative term.

Seibert, too, has publicly supported Lee's bill. But according to PEER's website, which contains e-mails from Seibert and his staff as well as staff notes, Seibert secretly began working last fall to rally support for reform this term -- specifically, on behalf of a measure advanced by Rep. George Albright, an Ocala Republican who is facing forced retirement after this session.

Backed by progrowth lawmakers who'd like to dismantle the act before term limits turn them out of office, Albright authored a bill calling for a return to the days before the 15-year-old act was passed, when cities and counties controlled planning rather than requiring the DCA to sign off on land-use plans.

One staff note say: "Governor felt something will happen and asked Seibert to work w/ Albright. Things are conceptual at this time." Another entry states, "Albright's bill -- We will work together. Not an adversarial position. Change in these areas -- 2001 not likely. Reform sooner in 2000."

The DCA appointed several of its members to work on legislation, even contemplating the free service of a lobbyist to help them draft it. In the meantime, Rep. Albright, who believes property rights are sacrosanct, was telling anyone who would listen that his bill for this session was in sync with Bush and Seibert.

What they hope for, according to Steven Medina, an attorney for the Florida chapter of PEER, is an opportunity to push through legislation before "voters know what hit them." A 20-city listening tour that Seibert has been conducting on the issue of growth management serves only "to make people numb," Medina says. "It's to make people think they're being heard, but in reality the administration has already made up its mind that it is going to go along with legislators."

That's ridiculous, says David Bishop, communications director for the DCA. He says PEER pasted together six months of e-mail and documents to make the agency appear to be doing something it wasn't. According to Bishop, the DCA still supports a study and doesn't expect any changes in growth management until 2002.

The DCA has been in touch with Albright and other progrowth legislators, Bishop says, only because the group sought DCA's advice. "If we work against them, we don't have a say-so in the process or [a chance] to guide it the way we want," he says.

"We don't deny that we e-mail back and forth," says Bishop. "But if you look at all the e-mail posted on [PEER's] website, it punches a huge hole [in the theory] that we have a hidden agenda."

Even if they do, it might not get far. Senate President Toni Jennings backs Lee's measure seeking further study. "If the House doesn't want to pass it, fine," Jennings told the St. Petersburg Times. "But [the Senate] won't pass anything else."

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