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The growth that ate Florida

By NEIL SKENE
Published April 24, 2005

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http://www.stpetetimes.com/2005/04/24/Perspective/The_growth_that_ate_F.shtml

Just about everybody loves the Legislature's new deal for financing the growth in Florida. That's a good reason to be skeptical.

Pennies are suddenly raining from heaven - billions of them - in a big state surplus. It didn't take long for legislative leaders and Gov. Jeb Bush to start spending them on the greatest pork category of all: roads and schools and local water projects. House Speaker Allan Bense said it's just like businesses reinvesting in the infrastructure for their growth.

But for Florida residents, unlike businesses, growth is a problem, not a goal. This is not a long-term plan. It's a release in a pressure valve. Until we take some real steps to control and manage growth at the local and state level, we'll just keep raising taxes and borrowing money to keep chasing ever-faster growth subsidized by current residents.

A real growth-management plan would focus on reducing the need for all this expensive infrastructure. The need for roads and utilities is driven partly by sprawl and old-fashioned zoning. We spend huge amounts of money connecting (and traveling between) the different pods of our daily lives: our low-density neighborhoods extending ever-farther into the countryside, our clumps of office buildings in areas so spread out that you need a car to go to lunch, our one-story retail strips with a cacophony of signs stretching along ever-wider roads. Go to any congested area and count how many people are actually walking across the street. Go downtown and look, and you'll see pedestrians everywhere. That's a big difference.

And schools: Look at the inaccessibility of new schools. Look at the sprawling campus (and parking lots) of a new high school, far larger than the classroom space. These big new schools at the far edges of current development are magnets for new development. Accessible older schools deteriorate along with the rest of in-town areas because it is "too expensive" to renovate them.

Only in the past few years has the state even begun requiring school districts to join the discussion of growth plans. It hasn't made much difference. Most superintendents don't consider growth management part of their jobs.

The governor, who is determined to re-engineer social services such as Medicaid to restrain the cost, has suddenly gone limp when it comes to re-engineering services for the growth industry, a huge constituency of businesses feeding off a growing population. The Tallahassee crowd had been waiting all session for the Great Plan to do so something about growth. It turns out they were waiting for the Great Pumpkin, which showed up in the form of a big fat state surplus. When you have money, who needs real solutions?

The legislative budget agreement reached on Thursday calls for $1.5-billion in new spending for "growth" next year. It's not divided up yet, and it is separate from the "growth management" bills chugging through the Legislature. We don't know yet how much of the spending will go to school construction as opposed to roads or water lines or sewerage or the other things that have to be built when more than 300,000 people a year are moving into the state. There is a separate $130-million for water projects, along with a lot of other new spending, including pay raises for state employees, a 6 percent increase in per-student spending on schools, more money for social services.

Environmentalists got sold on the governor's proposal to stop developments if the roads and schools and other infrastructure aren't in place to support them, or aren't expected to happen within three years. It's a concept called "concurrency," and it has been around for 20 years in state law. And what do we have to show for it? Congestion everywhere. Classrooms in trailers. Talk of higher taxes.

If Bush's plan had real teeth about limiting development, it would represent real progress. But it is not clear, in light of the compromises of the past, that Bush is bringing some unprecedented tough-mindedness to growth regulation. Maybe it's the best the environmentalists can expect from this administration.

No one, in the Bush administration or the Legislature, seems to be thinking about what life in our towns should be like, or how we might channel development toward areas that serve public fiscal, cultural, social and aesthetic needs, or how we capture some of the economic benefit that results from wider roads and extended sewer lines and new interstate exits and public transit centers. (In some U.S. cities, property owners have grown rich by owning land near subway stations, even as the subway systems themselves struggle with solvency.)

Bush's plan focuses on concurrency. But no one is talking about the way concurrency provisions distort the kinds of developments that happen and where they go.

There isn't much talk about the weakness of local and state decisionmakers in approving developments. They may indeed be political wimps, as environmentals often complain, but they also are poorly prepared, through analytical tools and fact-based perspective on the consequences and costs of their actions. We need economic and financial models that tell decisionmakers the full economic impact of a certain type of proposed growth. We need to draw lessons from the "best practices" of local governments that have tackled this issue. We also need to make doubly sure we're not facilitating developments that put new strains on social services because of low-wage, low-benefit employment. We need to quit putting no value on clean air and clean water and trees and wildlife when we determine "impact fees."

If impact fees are adequate, why isn't development paying for itself? Why does growth keep driving us to another round of local option sales taxes, higher property taxes, new spending on class-size reduction and rate increases on water and sewer systems as growth picks up? Why are we approving more and more discount retailers - which take business away from hometown merchants and pay their workers lousy wages and benefits that depress wages everywhere else in the community - and then taxing people to widen roads and redesign intersections?

A week after announcing his growth plan, Bush was proclaiming April as "Water Conservation Month" and noting the desirability of things like shorter showers. That suggests we probably should be worried about more than just "financing" growth.

Developers have the money to keep petitioning and planning and compromising (and to make campaign contributions), while communities are reliant on volunteers and underfunded government offices. We need to stop caving in because we just run out of the will to resist.

The governor's plan does call for developing local "vision" statements. Those could be a chance for communities to redirect their priorities. But in the governor's plan, the vision statements are just typical bureaucratic fare: a couple of public meetings will meet the requirement.

Sure, this state is way behind where it needs to be in building government services for a rapidly growing population. We need to be spending more money, especially on schools.

But our knee-jerk preference for office "campuses" and low-density subdivisions ensures that mass transit will remain marginal, and our determination to keep mass transit cheap will ensure that it is inconvenient and spartan in comforts and utility. Our failure to develop school models besides the pseudo-efficiency of big-campus schools means we will continue to build schools in undeveloped areas. Our century-old techniques of zoning mean we will continue to disperse the functions of our daily lives. Our strategy of funneling traffic and development toward a few big arteries means we will continue to build anonymous, cold commercial areas with no charm.

The governor and Legislature have surely made the developers, roadbuilders and many others happy. But five years from now, it's a safe bet that the state will be more congested, not less. Uglier, not more beautiful. Further behind on infrastructure. And we can remember the kismet of the Great Pumpkin in 2005.
 

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Yes, Jason :) , its sad about the never-ending growth taking over the beauty of our sunshine state, and we will pay the price in taxes, but just think of one beauty that will be saved, " The Everglades ", the multi-billion dollar restoration plan has started and Miami-Dade and Broward counties have reacted on future development boundaries in the west of each county. This area will be protected from growth and the wild birds and beauty of this region will always be the " Great Orange Pumpkin " in the future. :cheers:
 
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