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Businesses Fight Push For Land Use Overhaul
By MIKE SALINERO The Tampa Tribune

Published: Jun 20, 2007

TAMPA - Florida's largest business groups are mobilizing to crush a citizen initiative they say would slow development and kill the state's economy.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to defeat Florida Hometown Democracy, and amendment that would take major land use decisions out of the hands of local politicians and put them to a popular vote. The initiative's appeal is growing among residents who feel increasingly stressed by traffic jams, crowded schools and a degraded environment.

Supporters claim the initiative is gaining steam and that they will get the 611,009 petition signatures necessary to put measure on the ballot in November 2008. The deadline for turning in the signatures is Feb. 1.

Until then, voters can expect to see petition gatherers at concerts, art shows and other public venues. Before the campaign is over, tens of millions of dollars will be spent on campaign advertising, perhaps more than for any other constitutional amendment campaign in Florida history.

The most expensive amendment campaign to date was the 1996 battle over a sugar tax to clean up the Everglades. Sugar farmers and environmental groups spent $36 million on the initiative, which failed.

"This is much more serious because it has effects all over the state," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political scientist and author of books on Florida politics. "It will be a major change for the development community and local government planning. The stakes are a lot higher."

Supporters of the amendment have accused the chamber of dirty tricks. The business group pulled a video from its Web site that used actors pretending to be unscrupulous paid petition gatherers.

"The builders are looking to protect their pocketbooks," said Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer and co-founder of the Hometown Democracy movement. "The citizens are looking to take back their state."

'Comp Plan' Changes At Issue
The amendment would require voter approval whenever counties want to change their comprehensive growth plans. "Comp plans," as they are popularly known, are supposed to guide growth, outlining where homes, industries, parks and schools should be located.

Under current law, county commissioners vote to approve or deny comp plan amendments with advice from county planners. Blackner maintains that commissioners, dependent on campaign contributions from developers, approve all land use changes that come before them. The result, she said, is runaway growth.

"There shouldn't be a change made unless there is a finding by local commissioners that the public's interest will be benefited, or at least not harmed," she said.

Opponents, however, say constantly evolving market conditions force planners and developers to re-evaluate growth plans. An example is the recent rezoning approved by the Tampa City Council for an Ikea furniture store in Ybor City. The store had to get a comp plan amendment because the area was zoned for heavy industry. The amendment changed the land use so the area could be rezoned to planned development.

"That would be a perfect example that, just as a knee-jerk reaction, if you don't know what's going on, you would vote against it," said Tampa lawyer David Mechanik, who represented Ikea.

Gathering Momentum
Blackner says Hometown Democracy has about 400,000 petition signatures, though only 242,445 of the petitions have been verified by elections supervisors as being from registered Florida voters, as required by law. It takes 611,009 for the amendment to be on the November 2008 ballot.

"We expect to see the number rise, and at the rate they're going, they will get on the ballot in 2008," said Adam Babington, who leads the chambers' effort to derail the amendment. Babington said the chamber's polling shows support for the amendment running at 43 percent to 31 percent opposed, with 25 percent unsure. It needs to be approved by 60 percent of voters to pass.

The movement is getting some support from environmental groups, including the Sierra Club's Florida chapter and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Federation.

Bev Griffiths, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Tampa Bay Group, said her chapter has pledged $1,000 toward the Hometown Democracy campaign. Griffiths said her members think that growth in Florida is "off the leash," and they blame local government.

As an example, Griffiths cites the Hillsborough County Commission's decision to scrap a "livable communities" element proposed for the county's growth plan. The element had been recommended by the city-county planning commission after two years of meetings with neighborhood groups. It included development amenities such as green building codes, native vegetation requirements, sidewalks and bike trails.

Developers opposed the livable communities proposal, saying it was too expensive. Commissioners killed it with little public discussion at a work session in March.

"I think what made people change their minds was they would go to the meetings and try to make their ideas work through the system," Griffiths said. "And, in the end, they were frustrated by it."

Chamber On Attack
Business groups argue that the amendment will kill representative government and bog down the electoral process. They say it is unreasonable to expect people to spend time educating themselves about land-use technicalities to cast an educated vote.

"The fear is that [voters] would vote 'no' on everything," said Mechanik, the Tampa land-use lawyer.

Mechanik disagrees with Blackner's contention that county commissioners hand out growth plan amendments like candy.

"We go through a pretty rigorous process under zoning," he said. "If there are a large number of residents appearing at a zoning hearing, that rezoning is in trouble."

The fear that Hometown Democracy will bring growth to a halt has united business and development groups in opposition. Last year, they spent an estimated $3.1 million to persuade voters to approve Amendment 2, which requires proposed amendments to get 60 percent of the votes instead of a simple majority. Many businesspeople said the threshold was aimed at Hometown Democracy.

The chamber has assembled a "Hometown Scam Coalition" that includes developers, bankers and Realtors. The chamber Web site exhorts members to "Stop the Scam" and has a link for members who want to submit a letter to their local newspapers, opposing Hometown Democracy.

Babington maintains a busy schedule telling local chambers and business groups that Hometown Democracy is bankrolled by "special interests" who want to "hijack" Florida's representative form of government.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see $10 million, $20 million, $30 million in out-of-state money come in to prop up that Hometown Democracy campaign, which means that here in Florida, we're going to have to come up with at least that much money and certainly more," Babington said.

Campaign finance records do not support Babington's claims, however. As of this week, Hometown Democracy had raised about $588,000. Just 12 donations, totaling $435, were from outside Florida.

Blackner is the largest contributor to the campaign, giving $375,000 Most of the remaining 1,065 contributions were less than $100.

Babington did not reply to questions about how much the chamber has spent on the amendment. Campaign reports show the chamber's Free Enterprise Political Action Committee raised $354,000 as of June 7 and spent $301,209.

Edie Ousley, spokeswoman for the Florida Homebuilders Association, said the Hometown campaign will be particularly expensive because it will be fought during a presidential election year when television air time is costly.
 
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