NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Hometown Democracy Debated

Aug 4, 2009

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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 30, 2009…. Combatants in a simmering war over how much input voters should have on local growth decisions faced off Thursday as both sides gear up for what is expected to be a no-holds-barred fight to win hearts and minds.

With Amendment 4 slated to meet voters at the ballot box in November 2010, Hometown Democracy co-founder Lesley Blackner and opposition group leader Ryan Houck made separate pitches to the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee on Thursday.

If approved, the Hometown Democracy-backed amendment would require changes to local comprehensive plans to be approved by local voters at the polls. Backers say the measure, which passed its last judicial hurdle earlier this year, would go a long way toward ending what they see as undue influence wielded by developers in local growth decisions while allowing responsible growth to continue.

“Comp plan changes are political decisions made by our local elected officials and too many officials in Florida have been handing out comp plan changes like Halloween candy,” Blackner said. “Growth plans don’t mean anything if they are constantly being changed and that is what’s happening in Florida.”

Critics, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida League of Cities, counter that the provision would stymie even necessary changes to local comp plans by making it too expensive or cumbersome to modify the plan.

Floridians for Smarter Growth, a business-backed effort to fight against the Hometown Democracy proposal, has introduced a proposed amendment of its own. That proposal would require voters to obtain petitions from 10 percent of affected voters before a full vote is required on a proposed comp plan change. The provision explicitly nullifies the provisions of Amendment 4.

Speaking Thursday, Smarter Growth executive director Ryan Houck acknowledged the need to change Florida’s growth management structure but said Hometown Democracy’s efforts are not the way to accomplish that goal.

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong,” said Houck. “I think this is a classic case of the right problem and a wrong solution. It’s like taking a two-by-four to kill a fruit fly.”

Blackner disagreed, saying that since first enacted in the 1980s, the state’s growth management laws have become a joke. To back her assertion, Blackner took a swipe at last year’s growth management legislation, SB 360. Passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor earlier this year over the objections of local officials, environmental groups and the secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, the measure allows development in urban areas without the need to immediately build the roads and schools to handle the anticipated growth.

The measure was particularly ill-timed given the crash in the Florida housing market, which Blackner blamed in large part on speculative building and the unwillingness of local government officials to say “no.”

“Even when they crash the economy, developers still get what they want,” Blackner said. “We see a system unable to reform itself.”

The Chamber-backed proposal has passed Florida Supreme Court muster but has yet to garner the 676,811 verified signatures it needs to get on the ballot. Given the business-based group’s deep pockets and 443,510 verified signatures so far, it is likely to do so by the Feb. 1, 2010 deadline.

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