Article

The Buzz

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2007

Could Florida voters halt development at the ballot box?

Few Floridians have heard of Florida Hometown Democracy yet, but local chambers of commerce certainly have, and they don't like the grassroots movement one bit.

A statewide citizens' initiative, Florida Hometown Democracy, (www.floridahometowndemocracy.com), based in New Smyrna Beach, is trying to collect enough signatures to put a state constitutional amendment on the 2008 ballot to give voters control over comprehensive land use plans. The idea, according to the group's Web site, is to prevent changing a land use plan from "agricultural to single-family residential, or increasing density on a parcel, or changing height restrictions on beachfront parcels to allow skyscrapers." In order to make it on the ballot, Hometown Democracy has to collect 611,000 signed petitions by the end of 2007. By the end of January they had 120,000.

Put simply, if the amendment passes, city and county commissioners no longer would be able to adopt a new land use plan or amend one. All such changes, even minor ones, would have to go to the voters. The referendum would be held at the same time as the general election in every jurisdiction, or, if the developer or property owner wanted to pay for it, a special election could be scheduled.

"Voters don't want to see the state paved over," explains Lesley Blackner, vice president of Florida Hometown Democracy. "This amendment isn't going to stop all the building in Florida, but right now developers have a cozy situation. I understand if they're upset because they [developers] like the status quo."

Manatee Chamber of Commerce President Bob Bartz says if the amendment passes it will have a "seriously bad" effect on the region. "Economic development will be shut down," he says. The chamber's legislative committee, headed by Manatee attorney Gilbert Smith, says the initiative will make even small changes expensive. "Small businesses would have to spend money on campaigns to sell it to the voters to make simple changes to their land," he says. Both Bartz and Smith say the complexity of land use laws are best left in the hands of planning experts.

That attitude smacks of elitism, say movement proponents, but Bartz and Smith may have a point. Changes to land use ordinances are technical and, frankly, boring, and it's hard to know how many voters, even among those who may be directly affected, will take the time to educate themselves on the ramifications of a land use amendment.

This month, the city of Sarasota is considering nine such changes, everything from rezoning city-owned land that Wal-Mart wants to buy in north Sarasota from recreational to community commercial, to changing the density to accommodate a few townhomes on a couple of lots off Central Avenue, to changing two parcels in Laurel Park from commercial to downtown urban mixed. Opponents of the movement ask if most voters will really care about the smaller amendments. They also warn that a community will find itself hostage to the few who are directly affected and most likely to vote, and who may not have the entire community's interest at heart.

In Sarasota County, which has a 1,200-page-long comprehensive plan, Warren Richardson, communications manager for Sarasota County Planning and Development Services, says it would be difficult to estimate how many amendments would be on the ballot each year, but in some years it could be considerable. "We had 19 requests during our last seven-year update," he says, and they included such technical details as realigning parcels with the county's new corridor plan.

Blackner says she wants to create a debate about growth. She'd also like to raise more money. Right now there's no budget for 2007, she says, and money is trickling in from private donors and a $4,000 donation from the Sierra Club. Stay tuned. -Susan Burns

Five Questions

John Wiseman leads Florida's homebuilders.

Hammering it Home

Sarasota's John Wiseman is the new president of the Florida Home Builders Association (FHBA) and CORE Construction of Florida.

1. How did you get into this business? I worked construction jobs in high school, went into the Army and attended the University of Florida's School of Building and Construction, and then came to CORE, where I've been for 20 years. I moved to Sarasota because CORE works statewide-we have offices in Orlando as well as Naples-and this area was more centrally located.

2. What are your priorities as FHBA state president? Property insurance. If a person wanting a new home or condo can't get property insurance, they're not going to be building. Over the last few years people have treated housing as a commodity-they've over-invested-and so, consequently, there's a buildup of available product for actual use.

3. What will make affordable housing a reality? I've got several different ideas; one is what I call workforce housing for critical service providers such as firemen, police and nurses. I think employer-provided housing is a solution to the affordable-housing issue. It would help the employee figure out the best place to live, give him time to get the best deal, allow him time to set money aside, and help him become part of the fabric of the local, taxpaying community. However, there are external dynamics that we don't have a lot of control over, and one of them is cost of land, which dictates what you can or cannot put on properties. We have to be more creative in how we manage the land that we're building on, and we really have to look at impact fees and other exactions that are placed upon individual units. All of that cost is passed through to the end user, whether in rent or some other form.

4. What trends do you see in the housing market? We might see apartment buildings with commercial retailers below so that both can share in the cost of the land, which reduces the price. We've been building communities the same way since World War II, and some [of those communities] need to ask themselves questions about density and public transportation-how dependent do they want their workforce to be on the automobile? I think we need to step back, come up with a 20-year plan ad ask ourselves how we're going to get there. There will have to be sacrifices from different corners, but I think in the end, this will continue to be a great place to live. There are a lot of people with a lot of good ideas in Sarasota.

5. Why are you involved with the Future Builders of America? The Future Builders of America is a foundation started by the FHBA. It's patterned after Future Farmers of America, and its intent is to give high school students and young adults an opportunity to have a career in the construction industry. We give out scholarships to four-year colleges and career academies, and we have a camp where kids go away for a week and we teach them about safety practices and the business and technical sides of construction. I tell the kids that other than becoming a rock star, the best way to be a multimillionaire is to get into construction.-Interviewed by Megan McDonald

Strategies

We asked James Clemens, senior vice president and area manager of Kraft Construction Company's Sarasota division, how his company is handling the market.

The cost of construction has had a big impact on many projects. Some have gone into a holding pattern. But a lot of our developers recognize that it's a cyclical process. It takes two years to bring a large project off the ground, and they realize that the next cycle is probably going to be in 2009-2010. We are very prolific in terms of high-rise construction, but our secret weapon is that 50 percent of our work is schools, hospitals, state parks and shopping malls. K-12 is very important for us. We're anxious to get involved in as many school projects as we can. We've done work at Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of South Florida as well as community colleges in the tri-county area. We're so darn busy with stuff we're trying to complete by the beginning of 2007 that the timing is perfect for us. We haven't seen the slowing in condo construction. Eighty-five percent of our work is with repeat clients, and they're stable developers. -Interviewed by Abby Weingarten

My First Job

Designer Suzanne Lawson-Sultana began her career in London with ABC News.

NEWS JUNKIE

After Suzanne Lawson-Sultana of Sarasota's Sultana & Associates graduated from college, she moved to London as an editorial assistant at ABC News, where she honed skills she uses in her design business today.

"While I was a communications undergrad at Florida State University, I studied abroad in England for a semester and fell madly in love with the country. I decided to go back after graduation and looked for a job. A family friend's son worked for ABC News in London, and his mother gave me the name of David Glodt, who I thought was a manager. So I called his office and even though I never actually got a response, I kept calling anyway-to the point where it was embarrassing-because I was determined to get the job. Finally, his secretary told me that I'd gotten a meeting, probably because she wanted me to stop calling. When I got into the elevator the day of the interview, David Glodt himself-who turned out to be ABC News' managing bureau chief of Europe, the Middle East and Africa-was standing there.

"I was 22 years old at the time and very intimidated. He asked me if I knew the reason I was there. I said, 'Because I have a great resume?' And he said no, it was because of my persistence. He told me that he got resumes every day, was impressed with how much I wanted the job, and wanted to know when I could start. I worked there as an editorial assistant for about two years starting in 1989, which was especially intriguing because the first Gulf War had just started. I met lots of interesting people, like Peter Jennings. It's impossible not to learn in an environment like that.

"After I left ABC, I worked for an American law firm based in London and wrote for their newsletter. When I came back to Sarasota a year later, I decided that I didn't want to go into the news again, so I started looking for other alternatives and ended up at Ringling School of Art and Design, where I got a degree in interior design. Now I own my own design firm, but I think I've carried over a lot of the lessons I learned while I was working for ABC-persistence being the most important." -Interviewed by Megan McDonald

Buzzwords

>>Blamestorming: A group process where participants analyze a failed project and look for scapegoats other than themselves.

>>Clockroaches: Employees who spend most of their day watching the clock-instead of doing their jobs

>>Plutoed: To be unceremoniously dumped or relegated to a lower position without an adequate reason or explanation.

Source: BuzzWhack.com

Weekender

AWESOME AUSTIN

One of the world's top creative cities, with a thriving music scene, 20 museums, and resident opera, ballet, symphony and theater companies (sound familiar?), Austin is that rare place where both cowboy boots and Manolo Blahniks make the scene. Culturally diverse, Texas' state capitol is rich in history, architecture and a "y'all just enjoy yourselves, ya hear?" feel-but with a hip twist. (www.austintexas.org).

SEE: Blanton Museum of Art (www.blantonmuseum.org) is the largest university museum in the country, with 17,000 works including Old Master paintings and modern and contemporary American and Latin American art in a new, two-building complex. And make sure to take walking tours through the city's historic architecture and buildings, such as the Bremond Block Historic District, with its stately Victorian homes, or the contemporary and ornate 19th century buildings of the National Register Districts. Must-do: a visit to a taping of PBS's Austin City Limits will connect you with American and Texas roots music for toe-tapping Texas memories.

DINE: Southwestern sushi? Chef Tyson Cole has put a distinctive local spin on this staple at Uchi (www.uchiaustin.com). For high-end kitsch-think lots of Texas memorabilia and local art, but serious good eatin'-Ranch 616 (http://ranch616.citysearch.com) combines sophisticated gourmet cuisine (Chef Kevin Williamson's fried oysters are a must) with a fun atmosphere. And Texas homegal Sandra Bullock owns and operates Bess Bistro on Pecan (www.bessbistro.com), combining Southern and French cuisine in a historic downtown building.

SHOP: Get thee to SoCo (the lively South Congress neighborhood) for swanky gifts, Mexican folk art, vintage and antiques boutiques, and a hot club/coffee bar/wine bar scene. The Second Street District is a new pedestrian center near City Hall; check out Estilo and Cowboy Cool for high fashion, and keep your eye on the many small local boutiques sprinkled among national names.

STAY: Austin's hippest boutique hotel, Hotel San Jose, (www.sanjosehotel.com) is in the heart of Austin's happening SoCo neighborhood, with its plethora of coffee bars, live music venues and shops. The lobby bar is a favorite of locals and celebs alike. The Miller-Crockett House (www.millercrockett.com) is a secret gem, with three rooms in a historic 1888 house and three cozy cottages-the perfect place to stay for that elegant yet laid-back Austin vibe with an eclectic d├ęcor punch.

INSIDER TIP: Want to get a real handle on Austin's abundant, vibrant music scene? Adeo Tours (available at Austin's Visitor Center) offers a unique way to get in the groove: $15 gets you an iPod for 24 hours, loaded with music and insider info by local artists. Take the audio tour at your own pace to Sixth Street, the Red River District and more, discover which sounds come from which club and where the best happy hours can be found, and open yourself up to new sounds courtesy of Austin's best. -Mary Alice Kellogg

March Planner

7: Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County Corporate Luncheon Series with Steve Forbes, president and CEO of Forbes, Inc and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, 12:15 p.m. at the Bradenton Auditorium. $150. Call 761-2582 to RSVP.

8: Economic Development Council, Manatee Chamber of Commerce 19th Annual Hob Nob at the Sarasota Polo Grounds in Lakewood Ranch, 5:30 to 9 p.m. $60 for EDC investors; $70 for Chamber members and their guests. To RSVP, contact 748-4842 ext. 650 or e-mail [email protected]

14: Manatee Chamber of Commerce Spring Job Fair and Career Expo, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Manatee Convention Center. The county's largest employment event. For booth space, call Jahna at 782-5700 or Debbie at 748-4842 ext. 120.

21: 82 Degrees Tech Marketing Workshop, 1 to 7 p.m. at the Sarasota Cay Club, 7150 N. Tamiami Trail. Strategies and tactics for increasing sales of technology products and services. $30 for registered members, $50 for registered nonmembers, free for students. RSVPs required; e-mail [email protected] For details, visit www.82degreestech.com.

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