Planning nightmare

November 30, 2009

EDITORIAL: Planning nightmare

Despite the potential presence of some heavyweight match-ups on Florida’s 2010 ballot, the most contentious political campaign promises to be the battle over Amendment 4, the “Florida Hometown Democracy” referendum on managing community growth and development.

The initiative would allow citizens to vote directly on whether to make changes in local comprehensive land-use plans, which determine what kind of development goes where. If approved next November, it would give voters a veto over everything from new convenience stores to subdivisions, public schools to condominiums.

The idea behind Hometown Democracy has emotional appeal. It puts power in hands of citizens, who can use the plebiscite to trump politicians and developers who are often viewed as being in bed together on growth issues. Even its name evokes a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” kind of grass-roots populism to be wielded against entrenched, moneyed interests.

In practice, though, Amendment 4 would be a nightmare.

Any change to a comprehensive plan could be subject to voter approval. That would create countless ballot questions of an often hypertechnical nature, confusing many voters with jargon. Bewildered voters might vote “no” even on legitimate changes.

Every growth decision would engender months of electioneering, with PR campaigns funded by those same wealthy developers outspending their grass-roots opponents. These piecemeal referendums actually could work against comprehensive solutions to growth.

If Hometown Democracy is viewed by supporters as a necessary response to the overdevelopment Florida experienced before the housing bust, its method threatens to swing the pendulum too far the other direction. It could bog down planning decisions and impose greater costs on businesses that will have to spend more on referendum campaigns, and perhaps wage legal challenges or defenses to the results.

The ensuing gridlock could do more than cool off overheated development — it could retard it to the point that the economy suffers. That’s an especially bad risk to take at a time when Florida’s is struggling to emerge from a deep recession.

Those scenarios aren’t just theoretical. A version of Hometown Democracy was adopted by voters in St. Pete Beach in 2006 to prevent a proliferation of high-rise condos. A pro-development group formed to promote a new growth plan that represented a compromise in the height, density and number of condos. The group collected petitions to put its planning referendum on the ballot. The city commission refused. The pro-development group sued.

Meanwhile, it supported candidates who were elected to replace the anti-condo commission members. The new commission put the condo referendum on the ballot, and in June 2008 a majority of voters approved it. However, an anti-condo group sued to block the election result.

The city of St. Pete Beach (population 10,000) is now facing a half-dozen lawsuits related to the land-use plan and incurred more than $240,000 in legal fees in fiscal year 2009 (and has budgeted even more for 2010). Earlier this month, city officials indicated a new special assessment ordinance that initially was adopted to fund a stormwater utility system also could be used to tax property owners for those legal fees.

What a mess.

Hometown Democracy advocates argue that the St. Pete Beach experience is “fundamentally different” from the process called for in Amendment 4. We’re not convinced — and neither are the residents of that city who have spoken out about their dissatisfaction with land-use referendums. Indeed, on Nov. 3 the electorate there limited what kinds of planning changes can be voted on — a scope narrower than what Amendment 4 permits.

Amendment 4 would undermine our representative democracy. The public elects city and county commissioners to  slog through land-use plans, working with professional staff to understand the pros and cons of proposals and make a decision they believe will benefit their community. The public already has input on these discussions.  

Obviously, this is an imperfect world and elected officials often side with special interests, not the majority of stakeholders. That can be frustrating. The solution to that problem, though — difficult as it often seems — is already available: regular elections. Vote out of office those who don’t represent the people’s interests. Elect candidates who share the majority’s views on growth management.

Work harder to make the current system work. Don’t exchange it for an even more flawed, cumbersome mechanism.