Battle Stations

The fight over Florida’s future development is about to go to the polls, as voters are asked to decide the fate of Amendment 4

Just reading through the supporters lists for the organizations for and against Amendment 4 should give voters some idea who’s calling the shots in the battle for Florida’s development future.

On the list for Florida Hometown Democracy, the political action committee in favor of the hotly debated ballot question that supporters say would fight the sprawl and overdevelopment contributing to the collapse of the state’s economy: environmentalists, individuals, sustainability organizations and lawyers (including one in particular, environmental attorney Lesley Blackner, chair of Hometown Democracy, who donated more than $130,000 to the cause in 2010 alone).

On the list for Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, the political action committee against the amendment: real estate companies, developers, chambers of commerce and a handful of well-known big-box concerns such as CVS (which donated $100,000 to the political action committee this year) and Walgreens (which donated another $100,000).

The two sides are squaring off over a measure that’ll appear on the ballot on Nov. 2 that would require local governments to put any changes to a community’s comprehensive-use plan to a referendum vote before they could be approved. Per Florida statute, all counties and cities are required to have a comprehensive-use plan that determines future growth and development for that community; when developers and land owners request changes that would alter those plans – permission to build on or near environmentally sensitive areas, for instance, or proposals for large-scale developments that aren’t in keeping with what the comprehensive land-use plan has determined would be best for the community – it’s up to local government to decide whether to approve them. Citizens may take action against a development project that’s not in keeping with a comprehensive-use plan by filing for an administrative hearing with the state’s Department of Community Affairs, but the department does not have regulatory authority, so the decision ultimately remains in the hands of local officials.

Amendment 4 would take that power out of politicians’ hands and give it to residents, who would vote for or against projects that seek to color outside the lines of what a community has already decided is in its best interests.

Supporters of the measure, including Blackner, say that Florida politics are too closely intertwined with developers, which has resulted in sprawl and environmentally unfriendly development that’s glutted the real estate market with empty commercial and residential units. Indeed, in a story on Amendment 4 in the New York Times last month, the paper pointed out that there are 300,000 vacant residential units littering the state, yet the push for more development in Florida continues.

Opponents of Amendment 4 insist that this development creates wealth and jobs, and that the amendment would keep the state from ever digging out of its fiscal grave. They say Amendment 4 would force cities to hold votes on hundreds of land-use issues every year, and Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy executive director Ryan Houck says the amendment “isn’t designed to empower voters” but to “give lawyers a paycheck” every time these hundreds of new land-use proposals are voted on.

But the facts don’t necessarily bear up that assertion. According to data gathered by Florida Hometown Democracy from the Florida Department of Community Affairs, the number of changes to comprehensive-use plans made over the course of 2004-2008 came to roughly 1,591 per year. Distributed across the state, that translates to an average of 4.2 amendments per city and county – a far cry from the numbers cited by Houck and others. The amendments could be voted on during the course of regular election cycles, and no special elections would have to be held to accommodate Amendment 
4’s provisions.

In Orlando, says Wayne Garcia, communications director for Florida Hometown Democracy, if Amendment 4 were in place, it would give citizens a chance to vote on massive development proposals such as a controversial Innovation Way deal that would have rezoned thousands of 
rural acres in east Orlando so it could be used to build thousands of condos, houses and apartments. The project died earlier this year when the Orange County Commission was split with a vote of 3-3 on the project’s future (outgoing Mayor Rich Crotty was in favor of it), but as Garcia points out, it still may not be dead: In two years, the property owner can bring the proposal before the commission for consideration once again.

Garcia also points out a project southeast of Orlando at Eagle Creek Golf Course – a gated community that includes 1,000 homes, an 18-hole golf course and a clubhouse – which has future plans to include commercial developments, a school, a hotel and a town center. Rather than leave the fate of sprawling projects like this one up to elected officials, many of whom are desperate to approve projects that they think might bring jobs or growth, Florida Hometown Democracy says it would be best to let voters make the final call.

The goal, Garcia says, is not to tie officials’ hands when it comes to approving projects, but to give local residents a chance at determining how they want their communities to grow. This is particularly pertinent in cities like Orlando, where public officials think of large-scale development as its biggest economic engine, despite the fact that over the years many projects have struggled – 
or failed.

“One of our hopes about Amendment 4 is that it’s not just about going to the voters,” Garcia says. “We hope it changes the balance of power and these projects that are overly intensive and environmentally unfriendly will be modified and mitigated well before they get to that phase.”

But that’s exactly what developers don’t want to see happen, and the interests behind the opposition to Amendment 4 are making it a point to drive their point home – at a pretty significant cost.

Recent campaign-finance reports indicate that Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy have raised more than $10 million this election cycle (compared to a little more than $872,000 raised by Florida Hometown Democracy), and they’re spending it on scare-tactic-style advertising that tells voters to go No on 4 because it will cause the economy to “permanently collapse” by driving up unemployment and increasing property taxes.

The campaign even went so far as to claim that if Amendment 4 were passed, it would reduce the state’s economic output by $34 billion – a claim that PolitiFact, a St. Petersburg Times-operated fact-checking project, examined and called 
“barely true.”

“The opponents use a scary number of $34 billion in lost economic output based on assumptions that other economists – even two economists who also are opposed to Amendment 4 – say aren’t knowable,” PolitiFact points out. “Everybody agrees the amendment would have some impact, but how much isn’t known.”