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The Battle Over Amendment 4

By Michael Peltier September 30, 2010

The so-called “Hometown Democracy” amendment would require local voters to approve changes to their communities’ comprehensive plans, the blueprints by which local governments map out their futures to prevent the “development gone wild” atmosphere that became as synonymous with the Sunshine State in the ’60s and ’70s

as Flipper and Anita Bryant.

Like few other measures facing voters in November, Amendment 4 has brought out the big guns and the salvos of hyperbole that accompany such artillery. Lauded on the one hand as the average Floridian’s last chance to say “Enough is enough” to deep-pocketed developers, the proposal has been cursed with equal verve as a draconian tree-hugger effort to stop growth, regardless of merit, by subjecting it to micromanagement by the masses.

Following what is sure to be a barrage of advertising in the weeks ahead, voters will finally get a chance to weigh in on what is likely to be one of the most sweeping decisions since they told lawmakers in 2002 that they wanted smaller public school class sizes. To pass, more than 60 percent of voters must agree.

Spearheading the Amendment 4 effort is Lesley Blackner, a 49-year-old firebrand from West Palm Beach who has been a thorn in the side of developers and pro-growth groups for more than a decade. The University of Florida law school graduate and land use attorney paints her opponents as greedy, land-grabbing villains who don’t give a hoot about environmental concerns, sustainable growth or playing by the rules. She often expands the argument with “Does it make any sense to you?” queries that lead to a dialogue about class, power and special interest politics. Her intensity, at times off-putting to her critics, is genuine.

Since first proposing the amendment in 2003, Blackner and co-founder Ross Burnaman, a Tallahassee environmental attorney, have been joined by a coalition of individuals and groups representing environmental interests, home rule advocates and others. They contend Florida growth laws enacted in the 1980s are being rendered moot by frequent changes sought by developers and approved by local officials ready to reap the tax revenue new homes and businesses bring.

“Too many officials in Florida have been handing out comp plan changes like Halloween candy,” Blackner said during a June 2009 debate. “Growth plans don’t mean anything if they are constantly being changed, and that is what’s happening in Florida.”

Blackner faces formidable foes. Along with some of the nation’s largest builders and developers, opponents include local governments, state officials and labor unions that contend the measure would grind development to a halt and make even routine, necessary changes to local growth plans nearly impossible to complete.

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong,” says Ryan Houck, 25, an equally dynamic wunderkind who for the past three years has been the executive director for Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy and its predecessor, Floridians for Smarter Growth.

A former staff member of U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, Houck is spearheading efforts to defeat the amendment. “The status quo is imperfect, but Amendment 4 is worse,” he declares. In contrast to Blackner, Houck’s arguments are measured, unassuming and impersonal. He is articulate and unflappable, with a “just the facts” approach that complements his youth.

Growth at the center of the storm.

Houck’s group released a study by the Coral Gables-based Washington Economics Group that estimated the proposal, if passed, would cost at least $13.8 billion in adverse economic impacts. Estimated job losses would range from 106,652 to 267, 247, depending on how dramatically the amendment will affect residential and commercial construction activity.

Hometown Democracy advocates say the price of growth is already placed on taxpayers’ shoulders because they must pay for the roads, sewers, schools and other public buildings that accompany it.

More importantly, they say existing comprehensive plans already have enough capacity to accommodate growth. A Department of Community Affairs study estimates Manatee County has enough housing capacity included in its current plan for the next 85 years. Charlotte County has 162 years of housing capacity under its existing comprehensive plan. (Sarasota County was not part of the survey.)

“The bottom line is we have failed to have land development take place that is really in the best interest of the state,” says Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, one of only a handful of county officials to come out publicly in support of Amendment 4. 

If Amendment 4 passes, local governments would be required to hold special elections or add the proposed changes to the ballot in a regular election at taxpayer expense. Special elections would be paid for by the group seeking the change, but critics say taxpayers may be required to foot at least part of the bill. Statewide, cities and counties regularly see more than 8,000 proposals a year to change their comp plans, a number that both supporters and opponents use to bolster their positions.

Supporters say the massive number of requests shows why voters need more control over the process. They also say routine permitting and most zoning changes would not have go to a vote. Only those issues that affect changes to the comp plan itself would have to be approved by voters, and only after local planning panels and commissioners approve the changes.

Opponents say that is still a massive number of proposed changes, and the amendment would force local governments to hold scores of special elections or bog down voters with a California-style ballot chock full of changes written in technospeak.

Beyond the sheer volume, critics say voters are largely unfamiliar with the sometimes arcane world of planning and therefore susceptible to the emotional appeals of a well-run public relations campaign. And they point out that citizens are unlikely to

spend the time to research each proposed change.

“It can require hours of expla-nation and hundreds of pages of documentation to make an informed decision” on just a few comp plan changes, says Jon Thaxton, a Sarasota county commissioner who is an environmental advocate but has come out strongly against Amendment 4. “We spend hours on this stuff, but no one shows up at hearings.”

 Further, critics argue the amendment could keep grassroots efforts for such amenities as parks and greenways—which often require changes in the comp plan—from gaining public support no matter how worthy the motives. “The sad part is that the concept sounds good in theory,” says State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, a vocal critic of the proposal. “It’s just that the way it’s proposed is unworkable.”

Bill Herrle, Florida executive director for the National Federation of Independent Business, insists Amendment 4 could halt any signs of economic recovery. With Florida still reeling from overbuilding and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, hamstringing recovery efforts by slowing government’s hand would be catastrophic.

“This is like shooting a torpedo at the Titanic, just for good measure,” Herrle says. 

Anti-Government Angst vs. Economic Fear

Whether the amendment passes or fails will be largely determined by two sometimes opposing forces: the economy and whether voters feel government is working.

Backers of the amendment will likely be buoyed by anti-government sentiment that has formed over the past few years and led to the emergence of the Tea Party and other conservative groups angered over national healthcare, immigration and the federal bailouts.

“People see this as a way to limit government,” says Susan McManus, a University of South Florida researcher who studies the Florida electorate. “Right now, nobody is really happy with government.”

But with nearly $7 million collected so far, Citizens for Lower Taxes and other groups supported by the Florida Chamber will be able to launch a formidable advertising push in the weeks ahead.

Expect a barrage of television advertising from the “No on Amendment 4” camp, a salvo not likely to be returned volley for volley by the Hometown Democracy campaign, which has raised significantly less.

“I think by the time the election rolls around people will have a very good idea what this thing actually does,” Bennett says. “When they do, I think they’ll vote it down.”

If they do, an even bigger reason than displeasure with government may be the economy. It’s one thing to call for limited government when everyone has a job and the economy is humming on all cylinders.

 But take away the economic security that comes with a fully functioning market, and calls from the business community that the amendment threatens job growth and economic recovery will undoubtedly land on more receptive ears.

“In politics, timing is everything,” McManus says. ■

Michael Peltier is a Tallahassee-based journalist who has covered Florida government, politics and more than a few hurricanes for the past 20 years. His clients include Reuters News Service, TIME magazine, the News Service of Florida and Scripps Howard/Florida newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected]

Lesley Blackner

“Growth plans don’t mean anything if they are constantly being changed, and that is what’s happening in Florida.”

Ryan Houck 

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong, The status quo is imperfect, but Amendment 4 is worse.”

Jon Thaxton 

“It can require hours of explanation and hundreds of pages of

documentation to make an informed decision.”

Joe McClash 

“The bottom line is we have failed to have land development take place that is really in the best interest of the state.”

Mike Bennett

“The sad part is that the concept sounds good in theory, It’s just that the way it’s proposed is unworkable.”

Following The Money

As of Aug. 25, Citizens for Lower Taxes had raised more than $7 million. The biggest donor was Florida Realtors ($1 million). It’s followed by Pulte Homes Corp ($567,000), a Michigan-based developer that collected nearly $1 billion in federal tax refunds following the housing bust and currently has 68 neighborhood developments across the state. Other top contributors include the Florida Chamber ($450,000) and Florida Power and Light ($200,000).

Since its inception, Hometown Democracy has raised $2.3 million in cash and in-kind contributions. Blackner has contributed more than $787,000. She is followed by Steve Rosen, president of Tend Skin International, a Florida-based company, who has given at least $635,000 to the cause. The Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club and several affiliates have added more than $205,000.

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