April 12, 2024

Growth Management

Act II

Calling growth management a ‘mess,’ new DCA Secretary Tom Pelham wants a rewrite.

Neil Skene | 8/1/2007

“We’re trying to manage growth with an unmanageable statute. ... It’s a mess. It spraawwwls.”
— Tom Pelham

Calling growth management ‘a mess,’ new DCA Secretary Tom Pelham wants a rewrite.

Twenty years after he took the job of making Florida’s landmark growth-management law work, Tom Pelham is back and ready for a do-over. By this time next year, Pelham hopes, Florida will have a new growth management law, or at least a giant first step, to replace the 1985 act as well as the Santa Claus-sized grab bag of changes the Legislature has passed since then.

“It’s badly in need of an overhaul,” says Pelham, who heads the Department of Community Affairs and held the same job under Gov. Bob Martinez from 1987-91. “We’re trying to manage growth with an unmanageable statute. ... It’s a mess. It spraawwwls.” Then he adds, “There’s a big hunger out there among all the interests to come together and try to reclaim the law and make it something workable.”

If the forces of “management,” as opposed to the forces of “growth,” play their cards right, their negotiating position in Pelham’s next effort at consensus will be enhanced by the threat of a citizen initiative called Hometown Democracy, now in the signature-collecting stage. It would give voters a veto over any change to the so-called comprehensive land-use plans. [See related article “Who’s Lesley Blackner?”].

Developers are appalled at the prospect of democracy run rampant if Hometown Democracy gets on the November 2008 ballot. Even some groups that want tougher growth management, like 1000 Friends of Florida, have opposed the initiative because of the likely unintended and counterproductive consequences. Local versions have emerged. The first was approved last year in St. Pete Beach.

“It’s public frustration that has grown into a populist revolution,” says Patrick Slevin, a former Republican mayor of Safety Harbor who now runs the Slevin Group, a consulting firm that helps developers work with citizen groups before they reach the point of “Jerry Springer episodes at city hall.” People feel the process is unfair and overindulges development. Slevin says business groups need to respond to the “movement,” not just the ballot initiative.

“I think we can’t ignore that,” Pelham agrees. The best chance of slowing the initiative’s momentum is to produce a compelling alternative that shows “we are taking growth management seriously.”

The question is whether Pelham and his boss, Gov. Charlie Crist, can pull that off, and do it in time.

Pelham first of all wants to “restore the Department of Community Affairs as an effective advocate and positive force for better planning for growth management in our state.” It’s an interesting word, “restore.” Gov. Jeb Bush wanted deference to local governments and embraced developer-friendly legislation.

This year, under Pelham’s leadership, various interests unanimously agreed on changes to the complex growth management legislation of two years ago. The consensus bill (SB 800) loosened some 2005 standards significantly. But it wasn’t enough for the House, where Speaker Marco Rubio is a zealot on property rights and where future speaker Dean Cannon comes from GrayRobinson, a powerhouse law firm for developers and road builders. House proposals would have eliminated DCA review in a large number of cases. Environmental groups, which had once again joined a “consensus” proposal only to see legislative leaders ignore it, pushed back. In the end, DCA would be merely “encouraged” not to review fast-tracked smaller developments, and exemptions from DCA review would be just “pilot programs.”

If Crist had wanted to really empower his DCA secretary, honor the consensus-driven process and set the tone for future legislation, he would have vetoed the final legislation (HB 7203). But he signed it without any press release, and no one reported it. Crist could still recover the initiative for Pelham’s next negotiations with another of his populist crusades seizing upon “the people’s frustration” along with a personal commitment for tougher growth management. Platitudes like “I’m an environmentalist” won’t get the job done.

Tags: Politics & Law, North Central, Government/Politics & Law

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