Ever since Rex Jensen drove past a sign on S.R. 70 that said, "Clean Air Starts Here," he's loved his slice of eastern Manatee County. In the ensuing 15 years, Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder Manatee Ranch and an active participant in Citizens for a Sustainable Future, has been an outspoken advocate for planning sensibly for growth, which he feels is inevitable and beneficial. "Let's not be afraid to plan for growth," says Jensen. "Let's be afraid of the alternative, of people putting their heads in the sand and hoping the problem will go away. Because it won't go away; it'll just perch on the doorstep."
What are the major growth issues facing Manatee County, and what are the fixes? Transportation is a tough issue because of the expense, and because multiple agencies are involved, and because of the diversity and division of property owners in the county. Education is an issue, building schools to keep up with the number of people coming to the area. Water supply and wastewater management are manageable issues, I think. But the other things are in the realm of "How do you finance it, absent some form of private-public partnership?"
We need to adopt the vision of where we want to be when growth happens. Saying, "I don't want growth" is not a vision. It's a hope that will be dashed tomorrow morning at dawn when people show up. We have to be unafraid to draw lines on a map to show a road network for the future. Yes, it's hard, but imagine if we said, "Let's not pay for healthcare," and now we have bubonic plague. This Luddite kind of mentality is taking root here. Even though we can't figure out a way to pay today, and the roads are not needed today, let's not foreclose tomorrow's options. A community is either going to grow, stagnate or decline. Stagnation is hard to manage. Let's not be afraid to plan, to have a vision, to strive for something that's better.
Are people listening to your message? It's beginning to take root. Now the business community is involved, and residents are beginning to see that they need orderly progress. The government's ability to raise taxes is limited under the Florida constitution, which restricts it from reassessing every resident by more than 3 percent. Businesses have to shoulder the burden because existing residents are protected by this Save Our Homes amendment. Bradenton is starting to encourage new development because it's strangling under the burden.
You've talked about Lakewood Ranch being a laboratory for growth. What lessons can Manatee County take from here? It's a very good thing to have a master-planned context as opposed to an ad hoc series of 100-acre communities followed by clods of dust and land. They don't provide parks and places of employment on-site; they're hoping their neighbor will. They certainly don't want to provide a school site; we can and we do. We have the ability to develop an overall master plan and head toward that, rather than have a phobia of what we don't want.
Can you address the concerns of people who say recent growth is out of control and that developments such as Lakewood Ranch are eating up rural lands, causing long waits for service and driving up the price of housing? The growth engine is driving a good 30 to 40 percent of the economy. If you shut that off, wait until you see the growth in demand for government services, when the people who were swinging hammers are now swinging tin cups. If I were living in Flint, Mich., I'd want a little bit of a wait at Outback Steakhouse rather than having a bad economy. A long wait at a restaurant is a small price to pay for economic development.
As far as people complaining about houses becoming too expensive: The last time I checked, this was America. This is a capitalist country, governed by supply and demand. If the supply were up, the price would be down. Those who would constrain supply are driving up the price. Regarding the eating up of rural lands, if people would get off their density phobia and allow properties to be built at high density, they would see less land being eaten up. What lands have the anti-growth people preserved? We've set aside 5,400 acres of property; that's nine square miles. That's not a city block or a park.
It's the "I arrived last week and I don't want anyone else here" mentality, and I think that's awfully arrogant. My company has been here for more than a century, and a lot of companies have been here a very long time. It's time to listen to the voices of people who have been here a while instead of people who have been here since last Tuesday.