Further dismantling of Florida state oversight of growth

February 28, 2014 

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks with local officials during breakfast at Peaches restaurant on Manatee Avenue West in late October. Beside him are state Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Jim Boyd. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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Florida's growth management law has been systematically dismantled over the past five years, and new legislation lowers the bar on state oversight of so-called developments of regional impact.

Bradenton Republican Sen. Bill Galvano's measure exempts Manatee, Sarasota and five other counties from state DRI reviews, joining eight more heavily populated counties that meet the state's definition of dense urban areas.

Current regulations require a county population of 900,000 and 1,000 people per square mile to be classified as dense and exempt from DRI review. Under Galvano's bill, those figures fall to 300,000 and 400 respectively.

Only an exceptionally liberal mind-set would consider 400 people per square mile as a dense urban area. In a Herald/Times Tallahassee report last week, a Sierra Club lobbyist noted that amounts to one house per three square acres, in no way dense.

SB 372 contains three poison pills. The bill eliminates state review of large projects to ensure roads, utilities, schools and other public assets can accommodate new development for those less populated counties.

The measure also dumps requirements that promote infill development, thus returning Florida to the days of undesirable sprawl -- an expensive proposition for taxpayers, who would foot the bill for extending public services.

In addition, more counties and municipalities could disregard the objections of neighboring local governments that border large projects. Their concerns over regional traffic issues and environmental impacts could fall by the wayside.

Galvano counters that his legislation would spare developers the time and expense of an additional project approval process, stating counties are imminently qualified to review major projects.

SB 372 would also eliminate urban service areas, a flash point in the large Long Bar Pointe project along Sarasota Bay.

Manatee County commissioners recently removed the project from the original boundaries of the county's newly created urban service area, and the developers want to be reinserted into that zone.

All that would be moot should Galvano's bill continue to advance, having already gained two committee approvals, and pass into law. A companion bill, HB 241, is not moving as quickly in the House.

In the Herald/Times report, Galvano rejected any connection between his bill and the Long Bar Pointe project, stating he hasn't conferred with the two developers.

One is Carlos Beruff, a political ally of Gov. Rick Scott and a contributor to the campaigns of Galvano and many Manatee County commissioners.

The Long Bar proposal continues to inflame the community over environmental fears.

Public perception that elected officials are beholden to their campaign contributors -- specifically cited by Long Bar opponents -- is impossible to discount or ignore.

While we do not share that political cynicism, local elected leaders will be in full control of land-use decisions under this legislation -- officials whose campaigns are fueled by money from builders, developers and others.

At the very least, state oversight of DRI projects affords local opponents a measure of comfort knowing they stand a chance of blocking approval at the state level.

Since 2009, Florida has gutted growth management, and Galvano's bill would remove one of the few remaining pieces.

Florida should be embracing smart growth, regional collaboration and infill projects -- not opening the door to sprawl in moderately populated counties. We've been down that rocky road before in the past.

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