Voting on growth

In environmental circles, there's a defeatist attitude when it comes to growth management. Sure, activists can march down to county commission chambers and rail against whatever development is destroying wetlands this week, but they're unlikely to change anything. If they're lucky, they'll eke out a concession. Enviros believe the cards are stacked against them, and they're probably not wrong. Many local pols started life as developers, and builders are among the state's most powerful interest groups.

"We hate what's happening to the state," says Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach attorney and environmental activist. "We feel, like a lot of people, that people here don't matter."

Last month, Blackner and Tallahassee attorney Ross Burnaman incorporated Florida Hometown Democracy, Inc., a group dedicated to fundamentally changing the way Florida grows. The theory is that elected officials across the state have failed their constituents by constantly approving what Blackner terms "growth for growth's sake," sacrificing quality of life in the process.

The answer, she says, is to take some development decisions out of the hands of politicians and give them directly to the people.

Toward that end, Florida Hometown Democracy is proposing a constitutional amendment to let a city or county's voters, not its politicians, decide on amendments to its comprehensive plan.

Comprehensive plans, by way of background, are the bibles of local growth management. They outline, essentially, where a local government wants growth to go, and they dictate where landowners can re-zone their property to build more residential units or industrial facilities. Comprehensive plans are updated every five to seven years.

Twice a year, however, state law permits landowners to seek comp-plan amendments to basically change the rules and let them build as they please. Both the local government and the state's Department of Community Affairs must eventually agree to any comp-plan changes. Blackner's group charges that both local governments and the DCA are far too friendly to developers, thus the need to change the system.

From 1999 to 2003, Orange County has seen 81 petitions for comp-plan changes and two proposals for Developments of Regional Impact, or DRIs, which are major developments that also call for comp-plan changes but aren't funneled through the two annual amendment cycles. Of these 83 total proposals, the county adopted 44 (including the two DRIs). The rest were either withdrawn, postponed or rejected.

(There are dozens more "small-scale amendments" -- 10 acres or less, and a total of 80 acres per year per county -- that don't go through the same review process and aren't included in the above statistics.)

Statewide, Blackner says, Florida counties average 11 comp-plan changes per year. "Land-use decisions affect the community more than any other decisions," Blackner says. "Who's against democracy?"

Well, James Madison for starters.

Madison, like the rest of America's Founding Fathers, disliked direct democracy, thinking the general population too uninformed to make decisions. He favored representatives. Hence, you have legislatures and institutions like the Electoral College.

But in Florida and many other states, citizen-proposed constitutional amendments are increasingly popular. Through such initiatives, Florida voters have approved "government-in-the-sunshine" laws, the state lottery, eight-year term limits for legislators, a five-city bullet train and class-size caps, while banning such things as smoking in restaurants and caging pregnant pigs.

Last year, 11 amendments appeared on the November ballot; 10 passed. The only failure came in a change to the Miami-Dade County charter that northern voters simply didn't understand.

Legislators are looking to crack down on these initiatives. Last year, they authored a constitutional amendment making any citizens' initiative appearing on the ballot come with a price tag, so voters can see how much money they're actually spending. Voters supported it.

And the Legislature may seek another amendment requiring future constitutional amendments be approved only by a super-majority, meaning 60 percent or more have to agree to pass it, rather than the 50-percent-plus-one standard currently used. Two of the state's costliest amendments -- the class-size cap and the bullet train -- squeaked by with majorities in the low 50s.

If Blackner's amendment reaches the November 2004, ballot as she hopes -- meaning she gets ballot-language approval from the Florida Supreme Court and the required 500,000 signatures on her petition -- it could very well ride the state's increasingly anti-growth sentiment to victory.

"It would appeal on the surface to many Floridians," says University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. "But I don't think it would be a slam-dunk."

Doubtless the powerful building lobby would rally against it.

As Jewett points out, the logic behind Blackner's proposal is debatable.

"The average person doesn't know anything about comprehensive plans," he says. "It's not a newsworthy item. Most people would say, 'We're going to vote against everything.'"

Indeed, both county commissions and the DCA have full-time staffers to help sort through the muck of land-use proposals.

Blackner disputes the notion that voters won't understand comp-plan changes.

"We have to assume voters are intelligent," she says. And if voters are besieged by dozens of projects per year, then that means, "Growth is out of control."

Blackner says her amendment won't cost taxpayers a dime. And neither will it stop development altogether. Routine re-zonings would still occur if a county's comp plan permits them.

This isn't a novel approach to growth management. Senior Orange County planner Chris Testerman says that one Florida city, Vero Beach, employs a similar scheme. Blackner adds that it's done in Arizona as well as municipalities in Oregon and Ohio.

"This genuinely does belong in the constitution," Blackner insists. "It goes to the heart of how power is distributed in a local community."

Jewett disagrees: "There is a reason we have `elected officials`."

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