The state's new Department of Economic Opportunity presents new ways of doing business for developers and local governments. The challenge is finding out how it all will work.
What. The Community Planning Act in action.
Issue. How local governments deal with growth management.
Impact. Speeding up projects pushes job creation.
The impacts of Florida's new growth management laws have yet to be fully understood, but one thing's for certain — the Community Planning Act saved developers of Lindvest-Sarasota East Village roughly $1 million and a year of regulatory headaches.
Think of it as a poster child for why the Legislature sought to reform its 26-year-old growth management law.
The project features 450 acres of residential, office and retail development. It includes 1,349 housing units and up to 80,000 square feet of commercial development spread among four neighborhoods off of Fruitville Road in Sarasota.
The development has already been three-and-a-half years in the making, and were it not for the Community Planning Act signed into law June 2 by Gov. Rick Scott, the village faced the costly regulatory hurdle of the state's development of regional impact (DRI) process.
“It would have cost probably an additional million dollars for all the work that would have had to have been done,” says the project's engineer Roland Piccone, managing partner of GAP Engineering and Planning, and also a Sarasota County planning commissioner. “It would have been quite a task.”
By itself, the project doesn't meet the criteria to go through the capital-consuming consequences of lengthy regional and state review. But under the old law, the project would have been combined for regulatory purposes with a proposed project directly north of Lindvest. Together, the two developments would qualify to go through the DRI process, largely because the developments would share a main north-south road through the area.
It's what the law labels “aggregation” criteria. According to an analysis of the act by the Greenberg Traurig law firm, “The so-called DRI aggregation criteria was modified to relax the standards thereby making it more difficult for the state and local governments to force two or more developments to be subject to DRI review as a single project.”
Land-use attorney Dan Bailey of Sarasota-based Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen, who represents Lindvest, explains that the new law removes sharing of infrastructure as one of five criteria. It took meeting two criteria to force aggregation. Other criteria related to things like common ownership or a common advertising scheme, none of which exist between Lindvest's and the adjacent Lakewood Ranch project.
Now, Bailey says, “You must meet three of those to be aggregated. That's good and good for us. That change automatically put to rest any issue of aggregation.”
Despite being saved from the lengthy DRI, Lindvest's village still awaits planning commission and county commission hurdles, says Piccone, a veteran of the advisory board. “Our client is about to bring $125 million to $150 million into Sarasota County,” notes Piccone.
The new law contains a number of other provisions favorable to development, but it also gives local governments more control of their land-use decisions. For example, the law now exempts industrial uses, hotels and motels, multi-screen movie theaters, and solid mineral mines from the state's DRI process. But local governments could still impose their own regulations on large developments.
Ron Weaver, a Tampa land-use attorney with Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson PA, wrote in a recent review of the act that: “Local decision-making, and more balanced review, and mitigation of road impacts will help job creation.” He points out, for example, that local governments can no longer charge developers for existing deficiencies in their road networks. Instead, they can only charge for a developer's proportionate share of the road needed for a project.
Bob Hunter, the executive director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, says local governments still have significant authority to control their own destiny. “While it does change the DRI issue, and it does change whether there's state oversight on the majority of the comprehensive plan, I'm looking at the changes as there's no big brother overlooking government as to the quality of life.”
One major area that the big brother from Tallahassee backed away from is concurrency — the state law that mandated that local governments not permit development unless facilities such as roads, parks, schools and other community infrastructure were in place or committed. With the new law, concurrency rules are optional for local governments, with the exception of required water and sewer facilities.
“It's up to local governments to look at standards and how they're paid for,” says Hunter. “Most local governments will look at levels of service over the next six months. The question is improved quality of life, level of service as it deals with roads, schools, parks and sewer and water capacity, and who pays for it.”
In Collier County, Comprehensive Planning Manager Mike Bosi says county commissioners need to decide the new requirements and responsibilities of the county, and the main issue is whether commissioners want to maintain the concurrency system as is.
Mary Gibbs, Lee County's planning director, writes in an email that the county is still reviewing the legislation, but commissioners probably won't take the issue up until August. She notes that the new laws could impact her budget. “Some of the legislation may result in less work, and some will result in more, so we will have to see what shakes out,” she says.
Pasco County's growth management administrator, Richard Gehring, says the county is setting up a workshop session on the subject July 19 and concurrency will be part of the debate. Gehring says he views the new planning laws positively because the state is reducing its oversight. “It's really them stepping to areas of state interest. That's where I think they should be,” he adds. “I view it as something of a change in posture.”
So far, Piccone and Bailey agree, especially considering how the new law benefits their client, Lindvest.
“It can be complicated,” Bailey says. “They've made it more workable, I think, with the changes that have been made, without compromising the public interest.”
With all the changes in the 349-page Community Planning Act, there are a lot of questions about what it means for public and private planners and engineers, builders, developers, environmentalists and politicians.
So much that former secretary of the Department of Community Affairs Billy Buzzett and his team from the Division of Community Planning embarked on a six-stop tour to inform. It began on the Gulf Coast with three-hour meetings at Lakewood Ranch and Polk City that attracted hundreds of attendees, mostly planners.
Asked what the new law means for businesses in general, and developers in particular, Buzzett says, “They're like everybody else. They're trying to figure it out — what it means, the implications it has and the opportunities it has. And I would underscore the word opportunity, not just for developers, but for local governments, but also to the environmental community.”
Gov. Scott asked Buzzett to help put together the newly formed Department of Economic Opportunity, though he's not in charge of it. In fact, no one is just yet, and Buzzett says he doesn't have an official title once community affairs evaporates July 1. He smiles when he says, “I'm not quite sure what my name is. I'll still have a job; I'm just not sure what I'll be called.”
A transition to the new agency will occur during the next three months, at which time Buzzett plans to leave to go back to the private sector. “I think we've been pretty successful working with the Legislature and other partners to get the act done,” says Buzzett, “and now we want to make sure we have a seamless transition of the agency itself.”
The Division of Community Planning has been absorbed into the new entity with the demise of the Department of Community Affairs. With fewer responsibilities, the division's staff fell by roughly half to 31. Other divisions moved to other state departments.
“We stand today in a place of incredible opportunity as far as trying to refocus our limited resources and trying to get better at planning, and also better at protecting,” Buzzett says. “I'm optimistic by nature, and I think this law is going to provide opportunity to do more, so I think it's going to be great.”