State Politics

Local reaction split on new growth law

MANATEE — A historic rewrite of Florida’s growth-management law will have an unequal impact on Manatee County, with the new law covering some areas, but not others.

The bill that Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law Monday will ease development requirements in Manatee’s four most-populous cities, but not its two smallest ones, according to a legislative analysis. Nor will the changes apply to unincorporated areas of Manatee, where most of the county’s recent growth and development have taken place.

As a result, developers soon will be allowed to add more homes in Bradenton, Holmes Beach, Longboat Key and Palmetto — but not anywhere else within Manatee — without being required to expand roads or undergo a more-intense regional review. The discrepancy in the law’s applicability, the result of its definition of an urban area, mirrored local reaction Tuesday to the law’s passage.

Supporters, including developers and others in the business community, said it will spark Florida’s moribund economy and reduce urban sprawl by stimulating development in urban areas.

“This is probably going to be the best thing to help this state in a long time,” said Russell LeGrande of LaMaison Homes, president of the Home Builders Association Manatee-Sarasota. “This economic downturn really started with the housing market. If we can get an upturn in housing, it will lift the entire economy.”

Critics contend the law will have the opposite effect, stifling growth by shifting the cost of addressing growth’s impacts from developers to existing residents. Critics also said it will lead to more development along Florida’s flood-prone coast, cause environmental damage and less public input on land-use decisions.

“Ultimately it will reduce the cost to developers and increase taxes for residents,” said Glenn Compton, director of ManaSotwa-88, a local environmental group. “Taxes will get so high that nobody will want to buy (homes) here.”

The debate stems from the first major changes to the state’s growth-management law since it was enacted in the mid-1980s. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, an electrical contractor and commercial developer.

It exempts projects in “dense urban land areas” from meeting transportation concurrency, or requiring developers to improve roads to offset traffic impacts caused by their projects. Instead, those developers can pay an unspecified “mobility fee” toward improving roads, enhancing mass transit or other transportation-related uses.

It also eliminates a more-thorough review process for larger projects called developments of regional impact, whose impacts extend beyond one city or county.

The new provisions apply only to counties with at least one million people or an average of 1,000 people per square mile, and to cities with populations of 5,000 or more and a density of at least 1,000 people per square mile. That covers eight Florida counties — including Hillsborough and Pinellas — and potentially more than 390 municipalities, according to an analysis done by the Senate’s Committee on Community Affairs. A final determination on where the changes will apply won’t be made until later this year.

Manatee, with roughly 318,000 people and a density of 428 people/square mile, won’t make the cut. Nor will Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach, which exceed the density floor but have significantly fewer than 5,000 residents.

Bradenton, Holmes Beach, Longboat Key and Palmetto all meet the criteria, with Holmes Beach barely making it with a population of roughly 5,100 people. Sarasota also meets the criteria, whereas Sarasota County does not.

Thus, the law won’t change the requirements for proposed developments in eastern Manatee. But Rex Jensen, president and chief executive of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said he might encourage county officials to exercise the law’s “opt in” provision to apply the new provisions countywide.

“Concurrency is a failed system and we, as a state, have to do better,” he said.

Jensen’s frequent opponent in the development debate, Commissioner Joe McClash, said he couldn’t support that. “It’s a step back for Florida,” he said. “This legislation will allow local communities to throw out the rules. It will be a bad day in Manatee County if that happens.”

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