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Does Amendment 4 Go Too Far?

September 11, 2010 - 6:00pm

Florida voters this year will decide whether they want to amend the state Constitution to allow citizens control over their local citys development by voting on comprehensive land-use development plans. Giving voters oversight on development in their communities sounds simple enough, but ultimately it depends on who you ask.

To date, the measure has drawn together an odd-bedfellows coalition of more than 280 small business, labor, civic, planning and environmental groups and community activists in opposition, alongside Realtors and land developers.

The initiative, known as Amendment 4, is partially the brainchild of Lesley Blackner, an environmental attorney and president of Florida Hometown Democracy, an advocacy group for the proposal. According to the group, under the proposal, city or county
commissions will study and vote as usual on proposed changes to the local land-use plan. Approved changes will then be submitted to voters on the next regularly scheduled Election Day. Voters will then either veto or approve them. Its that simple, the group says.

Lance deHaven Smith, political science professor at Florida State University, notes that the public already has the right to comment in
public hearings on proposed changes to local government comprehensive plans, and individuals who are directly affected by proposed developments can trigger state reviews and go to court.

But, by far, the most influential voices in land development regulation are pro-development interests. By requiring a popular vote on comp plan amendments, Hometown Democracy would shift the balance of power somewhat toward the electorate, he explained. Development interests would still be influential, but not as much as they are under Floridas current growth-management system.

Blackner said Amendment 4 is a response to her groups assertion that land use is politics. Our elected officials have not represented the public interest when they approved all of these plan changes that led to overdevelopment in certain areas of the state and crashed our economy, she said, adding that it would not cover zoning, rezoning, annexation or things like that.

Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, the chief opposition group to Amendment 4, said it would, in fact, require taxpayer-funded referenda on all changes to local government comprehensive plans. In an earlier challenge to the proposal, the Florida Supreme Court said it would require votes on everything from capital improvement to traffic circulation, drainage, conservation, recreation, housing, historical and scenic preservation element, and everything in between.

In the last four years alone, this would have meant over 10,000 costly elections across the state of Florida. More elections require more tax dollars to pay for them. The Orlando Sentinel predicted the cost to taxpayers would soar into the millions, Houck said.

Blackner said the proliferation of empty condominiums in places like Miami and Naples, abandoned strip malls and shopping centers throughout the state are key examples of the sprawl Amendment 4 is expected to curtail. Our elected officials keep rubber-stamping more and its destroying property values, wrecking peoples quality of life and leaving taxpayers holding the bill because theyre the ones that have to foot the costs for providing the infrastructure and the services to all of this new construction, she said.

But opponents say the true impact of the measure isnt found in the language of the amendment itself. Citing a Washington Economics Group (WEG) study showing that Amendment 4 will reduce Floridas economic output by $34 billion annually, Houck countered that it will cost jobs and increase prices for goods across the board. If you love the recession, youll love Amendment 4, he said.

Yet Mark Soskin, University of Central Florida associate professor of economics and Amendment 4 supporter, called the WEG study irredeemably flawed and based on bad data. Amendment 4 merely closes a loophole that lets landholders with influence bypass the comprehensive plan. Residents already vote on every regularly scheduled change in their local comprehensive plans every seven years, he said.

Small-business owner and Amendment 4 activist Greg Gimbert notes that Floridas retail economy is based on demand to come and live here. When the national economy crashed we should have still been fine because Detroit will still be Detroit and Florida will still be Florida, but we weren't. Instead of being the national residential safe haven, our property values were crashing just as fast as or faster than the nation's, he said. Why? Because no one had confidence in our core market fundamentals like our neighborhood quality, home values, neighborhood schools and libraries, and our property tax levels.

According to Gimbert, only Amendment 4 will restore that lost demand by putting control with the local voters instead of politicians. Of all the reasons to vote for it, I would hope the retailers would look to their customers and neighbors instead of the politicians and speculators who crashed our economy, he said.

However, Toby Overdorf, owner of Crossroads Environmental consulting firm, says it will hamper the ability to plan for conservation in the future. We wont be able to accurately predict where development will or will not occur. Planners and city officials, he said, will no longer be able to make the tough decisions, such as where to put a landfill. If left strictly to voters, there wouldnt be any landfills anywhere, he explained.

In other areas where its been tried, such as St. Pete Beach, direct democracy initiatives like Amendment 4 have led to increased litigation and lawsuits over changes to comprehensive plans approved by voters (story on St. Pete Beach in Sunshine State News on Monday). Thats one of the biggest fears for Rebecca OHara, legislative director for the Florida League of Cities.

Putting aside the pros and cons, and just taking the procedural aspect of what it will require, there are a lot of unknowns about how it will play out, O'Hara said. You could very well end up with endless litigious challenges from those unhappy with the electoral outcome of plan amendments.

In a recent South Florida Sun-Sentinel op-ed, Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis said it is not hard to see why Amendment 4 is often called a stimulus package for special-interest lawyers. Amendment 4 was written by lawyers, for lawyers. It is not designed to empower voters; it is not designed to improve growth management in Florida. Amendment 4 is designed to pave the way for endless litigation at taxpayer expense, he wrote.

Blackner, however, dismisses these concerns, saying, You know, when developers dont get their way, theyre the most litigious people Ive seen in my life. Go look at the docket in your local circuit court, its clogged by the wreckage of real estate speculators and developers. Our opponents are desperate to maintain the status quo.

Amendment 4 opponents say it could additionally create an endless campaign atmosphere, where only well-funded groups will barrage the public with misleading ads over every proposed change.

Under Amendment 4, the residents who are most impacted by land-use issues are also the least empowered, Ortis said in the Sun-Sentinel. Amendment 4 means that residents living an hour from your neighborhood will be voting on whether or not to put landfills, jails and sewage plants in your backyard. Ultimately, your voice -- and the voice of your neighbors -- will be drowned out in the noise of high-priced, countywide media campaigns.

But Florida Hometown Democracy counters that all voters pay tax dollars for countywide services. When a new development requires new roads, sewer, schools, police and fire services, we all pay, whether it is in our neighborhood or not, the group said. Is a new development affordable for the community? We should all get a vote before were forced to pay.

Another concern noted by Kevin Hing, chairman of the Beach Stewardship Committee of St. Pete Beach and community activist, is that Florida election law requires any comprehensive plan changes to be summarized into 75 words for ballots. Summarizing comp plans in 75 words under Amendment 4 is like trying to summarize the Bible in 75 words or less --you just cant fit everything that everyone cares about into those 75 words, he explained. No matter how hard you try, there will always be someone who can file a lawsuit alleging that what is most important to THEM was left out.

Experts say both sides of the issue may be painting too extremea picture. This is just the heat of the campaign in trying to raise doubts, maintain the status quo and not amend the Constitution on the no side and on the yes side; quite frankly, a lot of wishful thinking in terms of how this might curtail some of the development and corruption on the local government level, Dan Smith, University of Florida political science professor said. Putting the power in the peoples hands is not necessarily going to eliminate the power of the development community in Florida. Theres hyperbole on both sides.

For community activist and Amendment 4 advocate Rita Miller, the only problem is that people may not understand that theyre finally getting power over their local land development. She says land developers and politicians have always been able to use taxpayer money to keep them from voting on amendments that are not consistent with their citys comprehensive plans.

Im not worried about Amendment 4 because its the best thing for Florida, Miller said. It puts politicians back into being public servants instead of making our decisions for us.

But making our decisions for us is exactly why we have politicians, Overdorf says. Our country is based on a representative democracy and more of a republic in principle. Our Founding Fathers never envisioned us to be a "direct democracy." We live in a republic and we elect our officials. If we dont like those officials then we need to elect new officials. Thats the way our cities and counties have been brought together and I continue to believe that.

Amendment 4 is not going to overrun representative government, Smith says, but it does have the potential to create more grass-roots involvement and stimulate interest in local issues and elections. If the passions of both sides are any indicator, the interest is already there.

Some very responsible, good-government groups (1000 Friends of Florida, for example) have raised concerns that Amendment 4 would harm the states economy by creating a high hurdle for new development and would make it very difficult for governments to construct or expand landfills, airports, jails, and other important facilities that are often opposed by surrounding communities, deHaven Smith adds. These are legitimate concerns. However, Amendment 4 is itself a response to legitimate concerns. The question voters will have to decide is whether the amendment goes too far.

Earlier in the week 1,000 Friends amended its stance on Amendment 4, taking no position and calling it a draw.

Steve Brown writes this story "special to Sunshine State News" from his home in St. Petersburg.

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