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June 24, 2018

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Lessons Learned? The History of Planning in Florida

Read an excerpt from book that analyzes lightning fast population growth, its impact and government's attempts to 'manage growth.'

| 6/1/2009

Excerpted from Lessons Learned? The History of Planning in Florida
By Richard G. RuBino and Earl M. Starnes
(Sentry Press, Tallahassee, 2008) Visit authors' website

» Pages 410 through 417, on Florida’s Rural Land Stewardship Program, which the authors warn "could result in a blunderbuss splattering of sprawl ...:"

On the ostensible note of aiding agriculture and environmental conservation, attention drifted from compact urban development to facilitating development in rural areas. The term compactness, typically applied to existing urban areas, was inventively adapted to compact settlements in rural areas.

Authors Earl M. Starnes (left), professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida, and Richard G. Rubino, who holds the same title at Florida State University, wrote this cautionary tale about land-use planning.
In keeping with the strong shift in political attention toward development in rural areas, the Growth Management Study Commission had introduced a fresh — but relatively untested — idea for developing rural areas while simultaneously preserving agricultural and conservation areas. This idea led to legislation in 2001 authorizing the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to permit up to five local government pilot projects, allowing them to designate all or a portion of lands classified in their “future land use element as predominantly agricultural, rural, open, open-rural, or a
substantively equivalent land use.”

The intent of the legislation is that rural land stewardship areas (RLSAs) should be used to further the following principles of rural sustainability:

  • restoration and maintenance of the economic value of rural land;
  • control of urban sprawl;
  • identification and protection of ecosystems, habitats, and natural resources;
  • promotion of rural economic activity;
  • maintenance of the viability of Florida’s agricultural economy; and
  • protection of the character of rural areas of Florida.

To be eligible for designation, an RLSA needed be a minimum of 50,000 acres and located outside of municipalities and urban growth boundaries. The law did not limit the size of RLSAs, nor speak to how far from a municipality or urban growth boundary an RLSA should be. Like a sector plan, a stewardship area must be adopted as a plan amendment by the local government, then submitted for approval to the DCA.

An RLSA program is similar to a transfer of development rights (TDR) program in that development rights are transferred from one or more designated sending areas to one or more designated receiving areas. Though based on the TDR concept, an RLSA is more complex; it provides landowners with an opportunity to enhance the value of land if public benefits are protected in some way. Thus, enhancement of value is a key feature of the RLSA program.

Land use credits from sending areas can be used to increase development density in receiving areas. A specified number of potential development rights (e.g., residential or commercial) are thereby lost to the sending area, whereas higher densities of residential or commercial development are then permitted in the receiving area over what is currently allowed under a county’s comprehensive plan. The new density of development is dependent on the number of credits transferred and the value assigned to those credits.

The RLSA program grew slowly. In the first few years of the program, only the Collier County program could be loosely classified as an RLSA; we say “loosely” because it was not an “official” RLSA. However, in 2004, the requirements in the original law and related sections in other laws were relaxed, generating considerable new interest. The amendments included eliminating its pilot project status and extending the program statewide. In addition, the threshold size was reduced from 50,000 acres to 10,000 acres. Furthermore, RLSA amendments were released from the twice-a-year growth management act limitation on local plan amendments, and they were exempted from the developments of regional impact (DRI) review process. Within two years, Adams Ranch in St. Lucie County was officially designated an RLSA. Aided by these amendments, along with growing concern over the development-inhibiting aspects of a potential statewide ballot to require voters to approve changes to local comprehensive plans, there was an explosion of proposals.

Table XI-1 lists the first two projects (named above) and five later proposals by county, short title, and size, as of spring 2007:

County???????????????????????????????????? Title of RLSA ????????????????????????? Size in Acres

Brevard??????????????????????????????????? Farmton?????????????????????????????????????????????? ? 10,384
Collier????????????????????????????????????? Collier County????????????????????????????????????? 217,483
Glades????????????????????????????????????? Lykes Property???????????????????????? 258,633
Highlands???????????????????????????????? Lykes Property???????????????????????? ? 67,424
Highlands???????????????????????????????? Blue head Ranch?????????????????????????????????? ? 65,000
Osceola??????????????????????????????????? South Osceola????????????????????????????????????? ? 96,082
St. Lucie?????????????????????????????????? Adams Ranch?????????????????????????????????????? ? 22,384
Volusia???????????????????????? Farmton?????????????????????????????????????????????? ? 10,384??????????

Source: Florida Department of Community Affairs, Division of Community Planning, 2007.

These eight RLSA proposals encompass a combined 781,343 acres of Florida’s rural landscape or, put another way, a pooled area of 1,220.8 square miles.

Sometimes referred to as being the first rural stewardship-type project, Ave Maria, a new town surrounding a new university of the same name, is being built in rural Collier County. The development may have as many as 11,000 dwelling units at build-out. Indications point to perhaps an additional six neighboring villages (e.g., the new town of Big Cypress, just west of Ave Maria), for an overall population of 60,000 in the RSLA. In exchange for approval to increase development intensities in the town and villages, the development company has agreed to preserve a minimum 17,050 acres in agricultural and conservation lands.

An event in 1997 laid the foundation for this project. The DCA had found the Collier County evaluation and appraisal report not in compliance with state requirements, and after an administrative hearing, the issue rose to the Administration Commission (the Governor and Cabinet) for a decision. The Administration Commission held with the decision of the DCA, and directed the county to come up with a better way to “identify measures to protect agricultural areas, direct incompatible land uses away from wetlands and upland habitats and assess the growth potential of the area.” A “better way” was found—theoretically. The county government and stakeholder groups, working in concert, put together a concept of using stewardship credits to allow development while protecting agricultural and environmental interests at the same time. Following a study, funded by five major landowners, the concept was applied to the Ave Maria site and surrounding area.

The first “official” RLSA project was the Adams Ranch-Cloud Grove pairing in St. Lucie County. Adams Ranch is the sending area, and Cloud Grove is the initial receiving area. This project has a growing number of critics statewide because it has more than tripled the amount of development initially allowed.104 Locally, Doug Coward, a St. Lucie county commissioner, reportedly said he had “grave reservations” about how well the project was working. Prior to the new legislation, large developments like Cloud Grove would have had to go through the DRI review process. This exclusion has prompted Charles Pattison, to deprecatingly call them, “DRIs with steroids.”

Environmentally conscious organizations such as 1000 Friends of Florida, the Nature Conservancy, and the Florida Wildlife Federation believe that, “it is critical that DCA establish some minimum guidelines before RLSA projects overtake the necessary comprehensive planning our rural areas require.” They list several substantive areas that need attention: open space, development acreage and separation distances, surrounding lands, easements, planning timeframes, sending and receiving areas, and the review and implementation process.

Caution should be observed when an RLSA project is considered. Though “maintenance of the agricultural economy” is one of the principles of the program, RLSAs cannot guarantee that farming will be continued because maintaining farming is an inter-generational problem. This concern brought Lester Abberger, legislative representative of the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association, to warn that RLSAs may be “a special interest issue that has implications beyond the health of Florida’s agricultural industry.” After a current farm owner passes away, his or her heirs may not be interested in farming, they may more interested in the urban development potential of the land. Additionally, as the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service advises, “Binding restrictions on future landowners and future land uses may become more controversial as population and development forces continue to pressure the land base.” Thus, there is a question of sustainability associated with RLSAs.

Rural land stewardship is a promising concept, but sustainability may be its weakest link. Stewardship-oriented developers may plan and assemble the stewardship areas, but who will serve as stewards for monitoring and backing up the conservation easements that will assure sustainability of the projects? Since subsequent landowners often are not interested in upholding easement terms, the outcome of the program is dependent on a serious commitment to monitoring and enforcing conservation easements, The American Farmland Trust includes concerns about monitoring and enforcement in its list of drawbacks to agricultural conservation easements. In the same line of thought, Jeff Pidot, author of Reinventing Conservation Easements, says, “... far too much about conservation easements is left to chance.” And as everyone should know, Florida cannot afford to leave its remaining rural areas to chance.

Maintaining rural character and the economic viability of agriculture may be another weak link in the RLSA program. These positive features to Florida’s visual and economic landscapes could disappear over time, if the location, number, and density of RLSAs are not controlled. Too many RSLAs could result in a blunderbuss splattering of sprawl, definitely contrary to the concept of building compactness around existing urban and town centers. If used in moderation and “sustainably” controlled, rural land stewardship is an admirable pursuit. If not, it could morph into an even greater urban area expansion-agent than the construction of the interstate highway system.

What will happen in ten to twenty years? The rural lands stewardship program could end up being one of the most significant of Florida’s land development programs or the use of the word “stewardship” could become a horrendous misnomer. All the law mentions is that the use or conveyance of transferable rural land use credits must be recorded by the county “as a covenant or restrictive easement running with the land in favor of the county and [italics added] either the state Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, a water management district, or a recognized statewide land trust.” If the cost of monitoring the covenant or restrictive easement is not supported as well as the planning, development, and marketing phases of stewardship areas, then the program will fail to achieve its stated goals—and Florida will be in far worse shape than it is today. A patchwork quilt of urbanized areas, or what 1000 Friends of Florida calls “a sea of urbanization,” could soon cover the whole state.

Tags: Environment

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