[Photo: Dan Gaye]
As it has grappled with the issues posed by its own growth, Florida has never lacked either good ideas or smart, well-intentioned people to generate them. At least once a decade since the early 1970s, one blue-ribbon group or another has studied growth, wrung its hands, knitted its brows and labored to raise the state's sights. Gov. Reubin Askew created a high-powered task force in the 1970s; in 1985, growth management legislation created what became known as the Zwick Commission; at the turn of the century, Mel Martinez chaired a Growth Management Study Commission for Jeb Bush.
Collectively, the efforts have borne some fruit: In addition to producing big, dust-gathering studies and reports, the groups played a role in prodding the state into creating some of the best land- and water-management laws in the nation.
The best, at least, on paper. It's tough to argue that the groups and the laws have succeeded to any large measure at channeling Florida's growth into healthy, sustainable patterns. By 2001, even Bush was wondering aloud about Florida's continued livability. More recently, a 1000 Friends of Florida study made headlines this winter with dire projections of how continued sprawl will make the state look by 2060 and concerns that Florida is at a "tipping point" beyond which it will lose "the opportunity to build great communities and forever protect natural lands, open space and farmland."
Meanwhile, in 2005, the Legislature created another group, the 15-member Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, to counsel the state on growth issues. It features high-minded leadership, including one of Florida's best elected officials, Mayor Rick Baker of St. Petersburg; longtime growth-management maven Steve Seibert; a number of city and county officials; a state senator; a couple of mainstream environmental group leaders; and executives of several development companies with good track records, including St. Joe Co. and the Bonita Bay Group.
The Century Commission has met regularly, brought in experts to talk to it, dutifully adopted a set of principles, set
some lofty goals and has crafted a careful set of initial recommendations.
It also seems like it's going nowhere fast. A charitable view of Century at this point is that it's off to a slow start. A more jaundiced view is that at this point in Florida's history, it -- and any more panels like it -- may be irrelevant.
The commission's activities up until now mostly seem to involve plowing the same ground tilled by previous commissions and panels. Century hasn't engaged much public attention; meetings have been sparsely attended. Florida Trend writers who've gone to several of the proceedings report that they're measured and polite but devoid of any sense of urgency about the task at hand.
The commission's initial recommendations also have a tepid quality about them. Mapping Florida's "critical lands and waters" is a wise suggestion -- it's hard to believe it hasn't been done before now. But some other draft recommendations -- "ask citizens what they care about and why" and "expand Century Commission by 3 members" -- are laughable, even embarrassing after more than a year's worth of meetings and discussion.
I understand that the scope of the group's assignment is vast, covering everything from education to transportation and disaster planning, and I understand that the internal politics of diverse commissions are vexing. But the commission seems focused on a horizon so far removed from today's realities that the group's deliberations appear little more than a dreamy exercise in wishful thinking. The panel gives no indication that it believes things are as urgent as either Bush or the 1000 Friends study has suggested.
Century simply has to do better than that. To be relevant, it must bridge the disconnect between the process of creating a vision, which is future-oriented, and the ongoing political decision-making process, which is incremental and short term. What good does it do to envision a sustainable grand-scale future predicated on building blocks that are constantly eroding under our feet? If the commission has nothing to say about developers planning -- right now -- to dig canals through marine sanctuaries or about the continued loss of wetlands or about the Department of Transportation road plans drawn up without consulting with any other state agency or planning group, then its work is pointless.
The broad parameters of sustainable growth ought to be clear by now. The state and local governments will have to make painful, expensive and hard-and-fast choices about exactly where to allow more pavement and suburbs. If restricting sprawl is wise, then governments will have to decide how much to spend to remove land from the private market (either by buying it or buying development rights) and then find ways to deal with the implications of that tactic: Higher land prices elsewhere that will force increased densities, make housing more expensive, increase congestion and push ancillary costs, like insurance, higher.
What Florida may need most is not a commission trying to think big thoughts. It may need a champion for smart, sustainable growth who'll look for some immediate ways to start steering things the right way. Gov. Charlie Crist could leave the state a legacy in this regard, but his inauguration speech left no indication he's so inclined.
As reported in our cover story in this issue, Sarasota County has taken a number of common-sense, low-cost steps to foster healthier growth and wiser use of natural resources. Sarasota County Commissioner Shannon Staub, a Republican, told Florida Trend's Cynthia Barnett that too much patience and deliberation is no virtue. "We need a road map for sustainability in Florida," she says. "And I don't know if the Century Commission is the one to do it. It doesn't take 50 years. And anyway, we don't have 50 years."