110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
The war of words ramps up
By Pat Hatfield
posted Jun 26, 2009 - 3:53:50pm
Next fall, Florida voters will decide if they want the power to approve or deny changes to their communities' comprehensive land-use plans.
The controversial Hometown Democracy amendment to Florida's constitution will be on the November 2010 ballot after clearing a number of hurdles.
The Florida Division of Elections certified the amendment June 22, after the Florida Supreme Court tossed out a challenge June 17.
Hometown Democracy will appear as Amendment 4 on the Nov. 2, 2010, ballot. A "yes" from more than 60 percent of voters will give individual Floridians the chance to cast ballots on development proposals now decided by elected city commissions and county councils.
The measure's passage will either save Florida or destroy it, depending on whom you talk with.
Hometown Democracy founder Lesley Blackner said the amendment will stop the ill-planned growth that has bankrupted Florida and threatened its natural resources.
"We have government of the developer, by the developer and for the developer," Blackner said.
But the Florida Chamber of Commerce calls Hometown Democracy "a grave threat to Florida's future" and "a jobs killer that would imperil Florida's prosperity and quality of life, and make the current economic downturn permanent."
Local governments in Florida are required to create and maintain complex documents known as comprehensive plans.
The plans set out how communities intend to develop, and how they will keep up with the need for amenities and services — like parks, streets and utilities — as they grow.
Comprehensive plans assign land uses to property, and the land uses govern the types of development that can occur on that property, according to the plan.
But land uses can be changed, and often are, at the request of property owners or developers, and with the approval of city commissions and county councils.
Hometown Democracy would insert voters into that process, by giving them the opportunity to veto land-use changes that are approved by their local governments.
"If they're making lots and lots of plan changes, they don't really have a plan," Blackner said. "They're just making developers happy."
But when developers are happy, that means the economy is prospering and jobs are being created, said DeLand-area contractor Ken Goldberg.
If Hometown Democracy passes, Goldberg said, the Fortune 500 company that wants to build a facility and bring jobs will bypass Florida, because it will be too hard to get the needed land-use change from agricultural to commercial or industrial.
Citizens already elect county and city representatives to make these decisions, Goldberg said. He called Hometown Democracy "a bastardization of democracy."
It has taken five years, several court challenges and more than $1 million of Palm Beach attorney Blackner's money to get Hometown Democracy on the ballot.
She and attorney Ross Burnaman, who are both involved in growth-management and land-use law, founded the New Smyrna Beach-based Hometown Democracy movement.
After witnessing an explosion of development, the two attorneys started a petition drive to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot. They were concerned that much of the development they were witnessing was poorly planned and harmful to the environment and Floridians' quality of life.
Apparently, many Florida residents agreed.
According to the Department of State's unofficial count, Hometown Democracy petitions were signed by 711,168 people statewide, with 676,811 signatures needed for ballot certification.
The movement has attracted the support of environmentalists and environmental groups.
Betty O'Laughlin of Lake Helen is president of the Environmental Council of Volusia and Flagler Counties. She's also a member of the Sierra Club, whose members have worked for Hometown Democracy.
She is celebrating the amendment's hard-fought placement on the ballot.
"It's wonderful," she said.
O'Laughlin said the measure wouldn't have been necessary if public officials had done their jobs.
"We wouldn't have had to do it if people in high places had followed the rules, if landowners and developers had been told no," she said. "We're supposed to protect Florida; they haven't done that."
The most-well-funded, best-organized opposition to Hometown Democracy is called Floridians for Smarter Growth, online at www.florida2010.org.
The political-action committee is a coalition of business interests, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
They call Hometown Democracy's Amendment 4 "a 'Vote on Everything' initiative that would force taxpayers to fund referenda for thousands of technical planning changes each year."
Floridians for Smarter Growth created its own amendment, but hasn't yet gathered enough signatures to get it on the ballot.
Smarter Growth's amendment would require citizens to petition for the opportunity to vote on land-use changes. It would give residents a window of time during which they would have to visit their local Elections Offices to sign up to request referendums.
Floridians for Smarter Growth says this would allow flexibility in growth management, and balance competing interests.
Hometown Democracy, which would require an automatic vote on every land-use change approved by local government, would overburden voters, the business coalition says.
Floridians for Smarter Growth Executive Director Ryan Houck called Amendment 4 "a bad idea."
The state has lost a half-million jobs in construction and industry, he said, and Hometown Democracy would lock in those losses, by discouraging businesses and industry from moving to Florida.
A Hometown Democracy-type measure enacted in St. Pete Beach in 2006 has been a "dismal failure," Houck said, generating $500,000 in lawsuits.
Houck said Smarter Growth's amendment would foster cooperation between developers, neighborhood associations and planners, instead of dividing people into pro-growth and anti-growth camps.
How many land-use changes?
A key area of disagreement between Hometown Democracy and Smarter Growth is the actual number of land-use referendums local voters would decide.
Smarter Growth's Web site predicts there will be "200 to 300" land-use referendums every year.
If it were true, that in itself would be a problem, Blackner said.
"The whole idea is, comprehensive plans aren't meant to be changed, except in a few circumstances," she said.
In areas where Hometown Democracy-type measures have been enacted, Blackner noted, the number of land-use changes declines.
"Where this has been done, we see city and county commissions starting to live with the terms of the growth plans," she said.
As for St. Pete Beach's measure, which Houck mentioned, Blackner said it differs from Hometown Democracy and has been problematic, in part, because it calls for the developers themselves to write the ballot language for the referenda.
As for having several elections a year, Blackner said that won't happen.
Hometown Democracy Amendment 4 calls for land-use referenda to be part of already-scheduled elections, although developers could pay for special, midterm elections if they wanted.
Only land-use changes already approved by local government will go to a vote, giving "voters a veto over bad plan changes," Blackner said.
She is especially concerned about development proposals like Restoration in Volusia County. The proposed land-use change would allow 8,500 housing units and 3.3 million square feet of nonresidential development on a 5,181-acre tract near Edgewater.
Big comprehensive-plan changes like that should go before voters, Blackner said.
But, these days, a proposal like Restoration is unusual. The current economic slowdown has slashed the number of land-use changes local governments are considering.
A survey of DeLand, Deltona, Orange City and DeBary did not reveal a plethora of requests for comprehensive-plan amendments. Three of these cities each reported one such request for calendar year 2008; Orange City had four.
During the boom years of 2005 and 2006, DeLand had many more land-use-change applications. In 2005, there were 18 large ones (generally, over 10 acres) and eight small ones. In 2006, the city considered 12 large ones, and eight small ones.
Will there be another rush, as developers request changes, before Amendment 4 can pass?
Deltona spokesman Lee Lopez said, so far, there has been no such stampede.
County Chair Frank Bruno doesn't think there will be an inundation.
Bruno said he doesn't think anyone has the money right now to plan development, given the economy.
"I don't predict a rush to get land-use changes," he said.
When the economy improves, the number of comp-plan changes will likely increase, with or without Hometown Democracy, Bruno said.
Bruno doesn't support Amendment 4, but he expects voters to approve it, as backlash to all the growth in recent years. There may be some unintended consequences.
"I think it's going to be a detriment to economic development in the state," he said.
Blackner, of course, disagrees.
"My response to that is that we just had years of giving developers everything they wanted. They crashed the economy," she said. "If a plan amendment comes along that's really good for the community, I daresay voters are going to approve it."
Contractor Goldberg said the idea that voters should be able to prevent landowners from using their property is "elitist theory." He said people want land to forever remain undeveloped and wild, but don't think about the realities of a free-enterprise economy.
"It's an emotional overreaction to people's aesthetics," Goldberg said.
All agreed on one thing: The arguments will continue.
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