We’re asked to fear ourselves, folks

By Steve Estes

The spin machine and fear-mongering has begun in earnest across the state as big development interests, used to having their own way with local governments over the last two decades, are already trying to make Floridians afraid of “permanent economic recession” as a result of Amendment 4 on the November 2010 ballot.

Amendment 4 is better known as the Florida Hometown Democracy issue. The summary of the issue is to allow the voters to make a decision on proposed comprehensive plan land use amendments and take that power away from the exclusive purview of politicians and local planners.

According to Floridians for Smarter Growth, an organization formed to fight Hometown Democracy and backed by some of the biggest development interests in the state including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, allowing voters to decide land use issues would completely shut down the construction industry in Florida for years to come, maybe permanently, and force our state to live in the throes of unending economic recession.

The group claims that allowing voters to make the final decisions on land use questions will stop even the building of schools, hospitals and community centers, many of which they claim require land use amendments and assume the voters will always turn them down.

This claim is patently false on so many levels we don’t have the space to argue them all.

The first answer we would have to give is that we don’t think nearly as little of the intelligence of the common voter as do the development interests that are obviously scared to death of just that intelligence.

We tend to think that voters would indeed support new schools, hospitals and public facilities as all of those enhance the quality of life of everyone involved.

What the development interests are afraid of, and rightly so, is that the voters wouldn’t support the constant “tweaking” of local land use plans designed to allow developments to be built in ever-more environmentally sensitive areas, with ever-increasing density, to ever-increasing heights, with ever-more encroachment on our already fragile coastal environment.

We don’t think voters would approve of building a 6,000-unit mini-city at the top of the 18-mile stretch, a proposal that has used every loophole in the current land use code to date to inch its way closer to fruition. That development would sit smack in the middle of acres of environmentally sensitive lands that form the edges of the Everglades.

We don’t think local voters would approve of land use changes that allow 800-unit hotels on areas of existing working waterfront, but we had a recent county commission that wanted to, and a staff that has tried unsuccessfully four times in the last two years to make that possible for the development interests pushing the proposal.

Opponents of Amendment 4 also want us to be afraid that voter-approval of land use changes would make it impossible to build affordable housing anywhere in the state, leaving us with a dearth of service workers for our tourist-driven economy.

The answer to that one is so simple and painfully obvious that mere notion voters would stop such things is another slap at our collective intelligence level.

Everything opponents of Amendment 4 say wouldn’t be allowed by giving land-use decisions to the voters is already allowed in every land-use code in Florida.

Schools are self-permitting agencies for infrastructure needs. As long as they don’t build on environmentally sensitive lands, they can build where they wish for the most part. And they can always build in suburban commercial districts and high-intensity residential districts. Both of those districts are where schools are needed anyway. The voter wouldn’t have to act on that one. It’s a false opposition, but the only opposition that can be tossed out that masks the true intent of the Amendment 4 opponents.

Affordable hosing is already permitted in nearly every area that serves a job market, or is in need of residential revitalization. The voters wouldn’t have to chime in on that issue.

The development can already be done with nothing more than building permits which won’t require voter approval.

No voter will turn down a hospital close to their home. To think otherwise is ludicrous on its face, and another slap at the intelligence level of the voter. And again, hospitals can be built in most areas close to large residential neighborhoods and city centers under existing codes. No voter approval would be necessary.

To try and make the electorate fearful of things that are already allowed in so many ways under current land use codes smacks of fear—fear that the voter will turn back mega-unit residential developments that are not needed to serve the population growth and will, as they do now, sit empty and create a blight on the landscape.

In the Florida Keys alone, experts say there is a two- to three-year inventory of vacant homes based on the most optimistic growth projections.

And there is nothing to stop the development of affordable housing complexes on land that is designated as medium or high-intensity residential use. Redevelopment of those areas is allowed anywhere, at any time, creating the construction jobs and filling the need opponents want us to fear will disappear.

Every argument thrown out by the opponents of Amendment 4 thus far have been just more fear-mongering by corporate entities and those in their collective pockets.

Let’s not allow the fear of what can already be accomplished by current comprehensive land use policies deter us from making intelligent choices on Hometown Democracy.

If a project really is good for the community, the voters will use their intelligence to make that decision. And if the amendment fails, perhaps planning agencies across the state will recognize that “business as usual” is not the way to avoid the current economic downturn we are experiencing, and was in fact the reason for it.

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