"No way," says Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who is an opponent of Florida Hometown Democracy, or Amendment 4 as it’s also known. After a citizens’ petition drive and a court battle, the amendment is finally going to be on the ballot in November 2010. A backlash against the rampant growth in Florida during the past decade, the amendment, if passed, will change the Florida Constitution, allowing voters to decide every single comprehensive land use plan amendment that gets through local city and county commissions.
Proponents say the citizens’ initiative will give voters a say on growth. However, warns Thaxton—who is a surprising foe since he’s often a thorn in the side of residential developers—what voters don’t realize is that most of the issues they will vote on have nothing to do with growth.
Most comp plan amendments are "complicated, tedious, mundane and administrative in nature," says Thaxton. They often involve updating the current plan, not approving major new residential developments. They can be hundreds of pages in length and will have to be reduced to approximately 75 words on the ballot. And each ballot could have a lengthy list of these amendments.
When Biz941 surveyed each county and several municipalities in Sarasota and Manatee counties in November, we found multiple amendments in front of elected commissioners: 10 comprehensive plan amendments before the Sarasota County Commission, 10 before the Manatee County Commission, 12 before the Bradenton City Council, 13 before the Venice City Council and one in Palmetto.
The majority of the Sarasota County amendments will pass, says Thaxton.
"Today we heard six comp plan amendments, which required hours of explanation and hundreds of pages of documentation to make an informed decision," Thaxton says, referring to a Nov. 10 commission meeting. None of the issues involved approving or denying anything to do with growth.
Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, who is a pro-Amendment 4 supporter, says his review of adopted comprehensive plan amendments from 1990-2009 showed an average of six amendments annually make it through the Sarasota County Commission; in Manatee County, from 1994-2008, an average of nine were adopted. Lobeck says he is certain that voters will be able to make informed decisions on these amendments.
Thaxton, who is now the Sarasota co-chair, along with Goodwill Industries’ the Rev. Don Roberts, of Floridians for Smarter Growth, a group gearing up to fight Hometown Democracy, says no one showed up for the commission discussions on comp plan amendments recently.
"We spend hours on this stuff, but no one shows up at these hearings," he says. "No one cares."
Beyond voter confusion or apathy, what Thaxton is most worried about are the unintended consequences of the passage of Hometown Democracy. He sees the establishment of a "litigious bureaucracy," expensive media campaigns as competing sides wage battles and expensive special elections. He warns that Hometown Democracy will have a "chilling, absolutely freezing effect on [attracting] industry. Can you see an executive from a company up North visiting here and going back to his CEO, saying, ‘You should see Sarasota. Great colleges, great weather, but, oh, by the way, we need to ask voters for changes to the comprehensive plan.’ It will take commercial [development] off the books."
Thaxton believes a more reasonable approach would be for counties to do what Sarasota did in 2007 by requiring supermajority votes (a 4-1 vote is required for passage) by a commission every time a comp plan amendment involving an increase in density or intensity arises. Stay tuned as the battle heats up in 2010.
The Hometown Democracy Amendment
BALLOT TITLE: Referenda Required For Adoption and Amendment of Local Government Comprehensive Land Use Plans.
BALLOT SUMMARY: Establishes that before a local government may adopt a new comprehensive land use plan, or amend a comprehensive land use plan, the proposed plan or amendment shall be subject to vote of the electors of the local government by referendum, following preparation by the local planning agency, consideration by the governing body and notice.
For the full constitutional text, go to: www.floridaamendment4.com/images/ConstitutionalA4language.pdf.
To view current amendments on the Sarasota County Government Web site, go to www.scgov.net/PlanningandDevelopment/CompPlan/Amendments.asp.
Florida Hometown Democracy
Floridians for Smarter Growth