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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 26, 2003 16 years ago

Call to Action

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Florida's developers mobilize to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a popular vote on every comprehensive land use change.

Call to Action

Florida's developers mobilize to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a popular vote on every comprehensive land use change.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Labeled as an urgent call to action, the e-mail carried a dire warning. "The real estate industry is facing, perhaps, its greatest threat," Russ Sampson declared in the Dec. 19 memo to members of the Tampa Bay chapter of the National Association of Industrial Office Properties.

Tampa land use lawyer and NAIOP chapter director Ron Weaver followed that message with a more ominous declaration.

He called it the greatest threat to Florida's commercial real estate industry since concurrency, the developer-despised enforcement provisions adopted in 1985 as part of the state's Growth Management Act.

Then Tampa real estate broker Julia Rettig, a past NAIOP chapter president, advised fellow members that her firm pledged $1,000 to defeat the threat.

Debate over the issue has simmered during committee discussions at NAIOP's five Florida chapters in Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Pensacola and Tampa. Now the rhetoric is reaching a fevered pitch against the proposed constitutional amendment known as Florida Hometown Democracy - a grassroots initiative that would mandate voter approval of any local comprehensive land use change.

"Each town, city, and county has a comprehensive land use plan that is designed to make sure uncontrolled, bad development does not ruin Floridians' quality of life and the environment," the nonprofit group advises in promotional material published on its Internet site (www.floridahometowndemocracy.com). "But comprehensive plans can't work if they can be easily changed. That's what has happened in Florida. Comprehensive plans are being changed willy-nilly by vote of city or county commissions to accommodate development that shouldn't happen."

Polar opposites

Unlike some political issues, a clear demarcation differentiates the combatants. It pits hard-line controlled-growth advocates, who are closely aligned with the state chapter of the Sierra Club and other activist groups, against one of Florida's most politically influential industry groups. Count as a NAIOP ally, for instance, Gov. Jeb Bush, a former Miami-based commercial real estate developer who has wielded strong influence on growth management issues over the Republican-controlled state House and Senate.

The proposed constitutional amendment emerged as an issue in June, when Palm Beach attorney Lesley G. Blackner and Tallahassee attorney Ross S. Burnaman registered the citizen's initiative with the Florida secretary of state.

Blackner, a partner at Blackner Stone & Associates, represents the Sierra Club's state chapter on various issues. Burnaman is a former assistant general counsel with the state Department of Community Affairs. Both attorneys blame unrestrained growth for the state's traffic problems, diminishing water supplies, crowded schools and vanishing undeveloped acreage.

"There are lots of laws on the books that could protect our beautiful state if the powerbrokers wanted it that way," Blackner argues in a position statement.

"Over the years I've come to realize that laws don't mean anything if they aren't enforced. Too often, the laws that are supposed to protect our communities and our future sit on shelves and collect dust. Or if, perchance, enforcement is demanded and it looks like it might actually happen, the rules get changed to accommodate the growth."

Since its formation as a political action committee, Florida Hometown Democracy has collected about 15,229 valid signatures toward the 488,722 necessary to appear on the November general ballot. As state history proves, however, the total number required isn't all that extraordinary. Besides weekend forays to busy retail sites, networks of paid and volunteer signature collectors typically target the state's presidential preference primaries to collect the largest number of signatures. Years ago during the citizens' drive to enact the net ban, proponents collected around 300,000 signatures during the presidential preference primaries.

Thanks largely to Blackner's effort, Florida Hometown Democracy already has collected more campaign contributions this year than the NAIOP of Florida PAC has raised since 2000. Through Sept. 30, Florida Hometown Democracy reports $22,206 in contributions and $20,668 in expenditures. Blackner accounts for $11,000, or nearly 50%, of the initiative's contributions. The salaried work of New Smyrna Beach activist Barbara J. Herrin accounts for nearly 45% of the group's expenses through Sept. 30.

Blackner's reason for investing such money is evident in her position statement: "My confidence in the people's ability to best protect their communities is strongly reinforced by the opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court upholding the legality of referenda on proposed land use decisions," she wrote. "Their decisions explain that the power to approve or reject proposed land use changes has always been the people's power, and they can take it back from the local politicians if they want to."

Potential costs

Opponents argue the proposed constitutional amendment not only could impede responsible development but also add additional burdens on the public coffers. They also say responsible development plans might fall victim to uneducated voters. Bad developments with well-financed marketing campaigns, which might never pass local government muster, could prevail through intense TV advertising. Then there is the sheer volume of comp plan amendments. NAIOP estimates nearly 12,000 comp plan changes are proposed each year in the state.

"It would involve expensive lobbying campaigns for every single plan amended," Weaver says. "So every time developers would want to amend the plan they would have to wait for a ballot, which would increase the cost that's passed on to consumers for whatever product or service they're selling. If they all appear on the ballot, it would extend the time that it takes to flex a plan to new realities."

But what bothers Weaver the most is taking the responsibility for growth management from accountable elected leaders and their professional staff, who he says are far better versed to determine whether a comp plan change would have a positive or detrimental impact on a community.

"Elected officials and professional planners are already doing this review of plan amendments, shooting some down and approving others in the public interest, as they were elected to do," Weaver says. "And in the case of staff, we're talking about professional planners.

"So this would have bad economic effects, hurt local economies unnecessarily and add layers of bureaucracies where they're not necessary," he says. "Just trying to explain all 12,000 amendments to the voters would cost not only time and money but divert attention from more important uses of these lines of communications. The support or opposition to a plan amendment would multiple exponentially."

Weaver also expressed concern that he says could affect every property owner in the state. "This could lower property values because of all the uncertainty this would create," says Weaver. He also argues that voters in Colorado and Arizona quashed similar efforts because of the uncertain effects.

Bad solution

No doubt the state's growth management system needs repair, says Bruce McClendon, director of the Hillsborough County Growth Management Department. "It's good news and bad news," he says about the proposed constitutional amendment. "The good news is there is a growing awareness that we have a serious problem with the growth management system here in Florida."

The problem lies in the complexity of the system, McClendon adds. "The real issue is that our comprehensive plans are so complex and so confusing that they make it impossible for the community and the elected officials to truly understand and to own these plans," he says. "The public wants, needs and is entitled to a growth management system that they can access, understand and own."

McClendon says, "The initiative set forth won't solve the real problem. It's an inadequate substitute for the reforms that are really needed to make the system work to everyone's satisfaction. Our (comp) plans are accounting ledger books not visionary guides."

So a practical remedy won't come easy, McClendon adds. "Florida's system is incredibly strong with regard to implementation, especially in contrast to other states," he says.

"Our deficiency is the lack of clarity and understanding about what is being implemented. It's important to put the emphasis on (being) visionary for the future and expressing it in a way that people can see and understand."

Florida Chamber Priorities

Constitutional amendments

×Raise requirements for constitutional amendments.

×Urge repeal or modification of ill-conceived or costly amendments already on the books.

×Amend state Constitution to prevent circumvention of legislative authority.

Education-Training

×Increase skills and abilities requirements for high school graduation.

× Support alternative vocational and technical training programs.

×Ensure appropriate growth funding for state's K-20 education system.

× Implement recommendations from Chapter 3 of the chamber's new Cornerstone report, "Preparing Florida's Intellectual Infrastructure for the 21st Century Economy."

Insurance

×Make health, worker's compensation and general liability insurance more affordable for employers.

×Make available cost and quality comparison on health insurance to employers.

Legal reform

×Defend protections enacted in the Tort Reform Act of 1999.

×Decrease civil liability against businesses and expand premises liability protections.

×Institute a system of joint-and-several liability that requires awards based on percentage of fault.

×Make Florida's summary judgment standard consistent with federal standards.

Tax and tax regulation

×Eliminate any tax advantage an out-of-state business has over Florida-based businesses

×Adopt the Streamlined Sales Tax Project to ensure the fair collection of sales and use taxes.

×Reduce onerous administrative burdens and legal liabilities on businesses that collect state revenue.

Transportation

× Implement recommendations in the chamber's "Transportation Cornerstone Report," which urges creation of a less-fragmented transportation system.

×Identify and purchase unmet multimodal transportation needs

× Remove impediments to providing infrastructure needs

×Maximize the return of federal gas tax dollars to the state under the congressional TEA-21 reauthorization plan.

Economic investments/

international trade

×Use performance-based economic development practices such as tax exemptions, incentives and tax credits

×Promote Florida as permanent home to the secretariat for Free Trade Area of the Americas

×Increase economic development funding through Enterprise Florida.

Environmental permitting

×Expedite permitting to meet needs of specific industries and businesses.

×Create incentive-based permitting that does not impose punitive or unnecessarily bureaucratic measures.

Identity theft and privacy

×Further empower law enforcement to prosecute identity theft and fraud.

×Preserve the ability of business to exchange personal information for legitimate commercial or governmental purposes

Rules and regulations

×Eliminate unnecessary or misguided government rules

×Ensure agency administrative procedures are economical, fair and equitable.

×Streamline the state's administrative review process

Wages and compensation

×Preempt state's power to establish a minimum wage in excess of federal standards.

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