‘Hometown Democracy’ Aims to Check Developers

By Libby Rodriguez

I had envisioned new towns in the sun — Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement realized in Florida with orange trees and beach front for all.

I had come to Florida straight from the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball Sate University in Muncie, Ind. In school, we had learned about Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities for London; about Daniel Burnham’s “Make No Small Plans” layout of Chicago; about L’Enfant’s vision for Washington, D.C.

I worked as a land developer’s consultant through the last housing boom. My clients and colleagues became friends. Many of these friends are now out of work or in bankruptcy. All the surveyors, roofers, and secretaries that they employed are in trouble now too.

At home, I am living in a subdivision designed and permitted by the engineering firm where I used to work. For a time, my kids’ high school actually had an entire other high school existing in portable buildings in a field behind the campus. That other school now has its own facility, but school crowding remains. The road we take to the school is so crowded with traffic as to be impassable at certain times of the day. We usually take “the back way,” which is much longer in distance but much shorter in time. My neighbors in the subdivision are unhappy about the overtaxed infrastructure.

Against this backdrop, enter environmental attorney Lesley Blackner. During the boom, she was dismayed by all of the changes to the local comprehensive plans that developers were able to make. The Land Use Elements of comprehensive plans in Florida dictate what types of land uses, such as residential subdivisions, shopping centers, malls, office buildings, agricultural acreage and/or industrial parks, can go where, but developers can have these amended by vote of the appropriate city council or county commission. So, an amendment to the comprehensive plan is often a step that a developer takes on the way to building his project.

Ms. Blackner’s unhappiness with the number of these amendments that were being approved during the boom led to her found the “Hometown Democracy” movement. In order to try to ensure that fewer comprehensive plan amendments are approved, she and her backers have now gathered enough signatures to put the Hometown Democracy amendment (Amendment 4) on the November 2010 ballot in Florida.

The Hometown Democracy amendment would mandate that all comprehensive plan amendments that are approved by local governments would then have to be put on the ballot for voter approval. In other words, if Amendment 4 passes in November, the voters will have veto power relative to comprehensive plan amendments.

Proponents of the proposal are people like many of my neighbors. They think that the infrastructure needs to catch up with the growth that already took place during the boom. They worry about the environment. Many of these proponents think that we cannot trust our elected officials to vote down bad comprehensive plan amendments because the developers’ money is a corrupting influence on them. Developers and their representatives donate to the local officials’ campaigns.

Opponents of the bill include my clients and friends who are engineers, land development attorneys and developers. They argue that the industry certainly does not need to be kicked when it is down. These opponents are very worried. They think that Amendment 4 will pass, and that the public will subsequently vote down every single comprehensive plan amendment that is put before them on the ballot, and that this will be the final blow to Florida land development. They also say that in the spirit of wholesale rejection, the public may reject comprehensive plan amendments that would, for example, help recover blighted areas.

In a sense, this bill is not about land development, but about representative democracy. Amendment 4 proponents make it no secret that they do not trust the public officials to always act in the public interest. They feel that the only way to ensure that that happens is to involve “the people” directly in final land use decisions.

But, how would that work? How would “the people” find the time to sift through the voluminous files of information regarding each of the proposed amendments?

Somewhere in the middle of the debate are the professional urban planners who work for the local governments. Many of these local jurisdictions have, in fact, come out against Hometown Democracy. They fear that voters will reject “good” comprehensive plan amendments with the “bad,” on a wholesale basis.

For example, Tampa’s Channelside District was transformed fairly recently from a bland warehousing area by the docks to a vibrant destination spot filled the restaurants, entertainment and highrise condominiums. (They would have loved the Channelside concept back at the College of Architecture and Planning in Muncie!) It is in an area near downtown that no one thinks of as the kind of suburban sprawl that Amendment 4 proponents want to block — almost everyone is favor of the revitalization of Channelside. But, the process of redeveloping Channelside started with comprehensive plan amendments, and these are the types of projects that could be inadvertently blocked by a public too busy to sift through all the supporting information for every proposed comprehensive plan amendment.

On the one hand, the internet makes direct democracy, which is really what is being proposed here, much more plausible, as the voters would have easy access to all of the information that needed to be reviewed to make informed land use decisions. On the other hand, the very same modern world is tearing at people from every direction, demanding their attention.

In summary, pollsters think that Amendment 4, Hometown Democracy, will pass in November. This will give Floridians a chance to experience direct, rather than representative, democracy when it comes to land use decisions. With that power will come responsibility. Will Floridians do their homework and approve “good” comprehensive plan amendments while rejecting the “bad?” Or will they — as opponents fear - fail to do the homework, and vote down all comprehensive plan amendments? Keep an eye on Florida after the November elections to see the results of this experiment in direct democracy.

Libby Rodriguez has worked in Florida as an urban planner for 20 years.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2010


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