Florida Guts Its Growth Management Law (Yes, It Did Have One)

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By Taylor Davis
The Saint Consulting Group

floridaAwash with 300,000 homes on the market and 500,000 others in various stages of foreclosure, Florida has enacted changes to its 25-year-old “Growth Management” law that make it much easier for developers to build even more.

The changes exempt much of the state from Florida’s Development of Regional Impact approval process, and release developers from responsibility to fund transportation improvements to handle their projects in most of the state’s big and medium-size metropolitan areas. Developers got another break in a separate law change that seeks to spur economic growth by shortening the time officials have in which to evaluate environmental and wetland applications.

SB 360, The “Growth Management Bill,” was signed into law quietly with no public ceremony by Gov. Charlie Crist on June 1, and took effect July 1. The original law, intended to control and manage development, was rewritten to relieve developers from requirements to fund road, street and sidewalk construction needed to accommodate their projects.  Instead, the legislation calls for study of a “mobility fee system” whereby developers might be required to consider land use strategies and alternative forms of transportation and pay into a mobility fund for traffic improvements.

Originally, numerous environmental organizations, including Audubon of Florida, were very much in favor of the proposed changes, which were pitched as a way to encourage development in urban locations. That changed, however, when the Florida House redefined “dense urban area” as “a census tract having an average of at least 1,000 people per square mile” — a standard that translates to a decidedly sparse and non-urban 1.56 people per acre.

“As this legislation first emerged from the Senate, it was a carefully crafted and well balanced product that attempted to modify Florida’s growth management process to encourage more growth in the state’s denser urban areas,” Eric Draper, deputy director of Audubon of Florida wrote in a letter to Gov. Crist.  But the bill was changed in the House, Draper said, to allow development almost anywhere, bypassing the “Development of Regional Impact” process that regulates the developments of regional impact through an appeals procedure.  As a result of the House modifications, Draper and others called on Crist to veto SB 360.

The law states that only in urban areas will developers be relieved of the transportation concurrency regulations.  But these newly defined “urban” areas include eight Florida counties and 220 cities.  The notion that developers have more freedom with building approval but not as much responsibility to improve sidewalks or roads surrounding the area where they are building, has people like Eric Draper concerned.

Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a major environmental organization, voiced his disapproval to The St. Petersburg Times. “We’re pretty disappointed with this outcome,” he said. “We think this is going to lead to approvals that won’t lead to any immediate job creation, and you’re going to have more sprawl.”

Many are also worried that this law may prevent or curb citizen participation and input on development that affects their own lives, as well as Florida’s environmental well-being.  Also, some are concerned that the changes will force taxpayers to pay for the roads that developers would have been required to fund.

Tom Pelham of the Secretary of the State’s Department of Community Affairs stated that affected cities, towns, and counties will still have a say in new development and how it will be financed.  The new law should not overshadow local laws or limit local power to charge fees on developers, he said.

Those in favor of SB 360 strongly believe that the changes will breathe life into the construction industry, thus awakening and reviving Florida’s economy.

On Wednesday (July 9), Lee County and a coalition of municipalities filed suit to block the changes, accusing the governor and Florida Legislature of passing on an “unfunded mandate” to local governments that could be forced to make up the costs for transportation projects once paid for by developers.

Another bill deemed friendly to developers in Florida also made it into law. HB 73, called the “Mike McHugh Act” for Hernando County’s business and development director, requires water management districts and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to allow and create programs to quicken permit processing for select economic activity.

Economic development projects must now be evaluated within 45 days, instead of the previous 90 days agencies had to accept or reject environmental and wetland resource permits.

Less transportation improvement responsibility for developers combined with the fastest expedited permitting process yet makes way for a large-scale development boom in a location where it is very questionable whether or not these changes will be welcomed by communities.

In a state that is already known for over-development and never-ending construction, will they be able to build themselves out of a recession as hoped?

Taylor Davis, a junior at Ithaca College, is a summer intern at The Saint Consulting Group

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