Florida leaders are bad at managing growth but sure are good at counting and building.
Financing is a real issue, of course. The state is basically running a pyramid scheme. We subsidize people's arrival, and we can't afford their upkeep. The Department of Transportation says it needs another $3.2 billion a year just to keep up with the current level of congestion, and that doesn't start to count the shortage of schools, sewerage, water, parks, affordable housing and all the rest. If it sounds like a lot of money, consider that the market value of St. Joe Co. stock, the biggest developer in the state, grew by about $2.6 billion, nearly 90%, over the past year.
"We don't have the courage to decide what our priorities are," says former DCA Secretary Steve Seibert.
Meanwhile, state projects produce windfall profits for landowners near those projects (just look at the effect of interstate highways, for example). The state gives property-tax breaks for land kept in agricultural use but doesn't recapture the money if the owner sells out to a developer. If the state is going to be co-developer and even seed-capitalist of growth, maybe it needs to share in the profits.
But talking about financing and the growth-management "process" misses the more fundamental issues about the inadequacy of our growth-management laws:
The most beautiful parts of our state are starting to have the ambiance of an interstate exit.
We display little sense of urban design, lifestyle and quality of life.
We are entirely reactive to the thousand people a day who move here and do little at the state and regional level to shift the patterns of growth away from congestion and environmental sensitivity and toward areas where services can be provided efficiently.
We don't differentiate between growth that pays for itself through new government revenue and growth that the rest of us will have to subsidize.
"It's not working," declares Steve Seibert, a former Pinellas County commissioner who was Gov. Jeb Bush's first secretary of the Department of Community Affairs (DCA). Says Nat Reed, the father of environmentalism in Florida and the chairman of 1000 Friends of Florida: "We're close to lunacy."
Linda Loomis Shelley, who headed DCA under Gov. Lawton Chiles, says policy-makers debate the procedural rules because they can't agree on the substance of issues about growth, such as how much and where it should be.
"You don't have to know how to plan. You just have to know how to count," observes Daniel DeLisi, the director of planning for developer Bonita Bay Group. Growth plans are about numbers, not quality of life, says DeLisi, who has a master's in urban planning from MIT.
"It's a fatalistic process," DeLisi says. "We never look at the state of Florida and say, 'Where should the population be going?' "
Courage and priorities
And it's not likely to change much. Inertia rules. Developers think the system is clunky but know how to work it. Environmentalists are afraid that any change will diminish state authority over wimpy local officials. The governor is against raising taxes, so we only pass laws that don't cost the state much.
The problem starts at the top of the growth-management regulatory pyramid, the listed "priorities" of the state's "comprehensive plan." There are 25 priorities. That means there are no priorities.
The problem starts at the top of the growth-management regulatory pyramid, the listed "priorities" of the state's "comprehensive plan." There are 25 priorities. That means there are no priorities. "We don't have the courage to decide what our priorities are," says Seibert.
Articulating a vision and values is peculiarly the job of the person in charge. In education, Bush has been fairly good at this, though you could quarrel with his implementation. In growth management, Bush has mostly ignored it or delegated it out -- to three different DCA secretaries and a commission. Current DCA Secretary Thaddeus Cohen, an architect, hasn't offered any vision but proposes a streamlined process with a bunch of local visions, created through active public participation.
But spare us those dull, jargon-ridden, planner-led "public hearings." The frustration with this anesthetizing process drives half-baked responses like Hometown Democracy, the budding initiative to let the public vote on any amendment to a growth plan.
Local visions require leadership from mayors and county commissioners. Nat Reed says local governments are simply "rolling over" to developers and granting them rezonings and amendments to growth plans. Developers wear down pockets of resistance, make compromises and get their projects approved.
But growth management is much more important than much of the trivia local officials spend time on at meetings, and they need to be personally accountable for the results. And the state needs to help local policy-makers and planners understand the consequences of growth decisions.
A new vision
Donald R. Crane Jr. of St. Petersburg, a frequent member of state panels related to growth and transportation, says nobody is paying attention to the economics of growth, including developments that will put more burden on infrastructure than they can possibly pay for through property and sales taxes.
There are proposals for more regional planning, but we have no regional government -- just planning councils, bickering assemblages of parochial representatives.
It's not that growth-management laws have been bad. They simply aren't nearly enough.
But in Tallahassee, the talk continues to be about the process. Bush's own credibility in growth management is impaired by his efforts to bulldoze through plans for a sprawling city at the edge of the Everglades built around the Scripps Research Institute, which Bush recruited. But he might try a vision like this:
Florida will be a state of thriving, desirable communities for generations to come, with orderly, sustainable growth and adequate services for people and businesses. We will ensure that those who come here share fully in the costs they impose on the rest of us. We will temporarily stop development beyond the existing edges of metropolitan development unless DCA and a supermajority of affected local officials approve.
We will allow new construction only if adequate supplies of water are assured for our entire state for at least 25 years. We will direct growth to areas where it is most sustainable. We will plan communities where kids can safely ride bikes to school and downtowns where people can park on the periphery and conveniently walk or use comfortable transit to their destinations. We will differentiate development for its economic and cultural contributions and give government support accordingly.
We will aggressively develop the abilities of our local officials and planners to assess the consequences of growth decisions. We will be even more aggressive in protecting forever the areas of critical environmental concern, and we will compensate landowners who put their land beyond the reach of development.
The heads of all state agencies involved in these issues will constitute my growth management board. They and their staffs will make it their priority to turn these ideas into a workable and effective strategy, with a high level of execution at the state and local level.
We have to start somewhere. It's not working now.