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Nov 23rd
Revolutionary Concept: Put Urban Sprawl to a Vote PDF Print E-mail
Written by Frank Rollason   
November 2009

Amendment 4 would do just that, which is why developers hate it

As residents in the City of Miami, as well as throughout Miami-Dade County, have been struggling to control unbridled growth and development on the local level, an opportunity to control it from the state level is coming our way in November of 2010 -- just 12 short months away. I’m speaking of the proposed Amendment 4 to the Florida State Constitution, as promoted by the grass-roots group known as Florida Hometown Democracy.

Simply stated, Amendment 4 mandates that changes to a local growth plan, known as a “comprehensive development master plan,” approved by a city or county’s elected representatives must then go to voters for final approval or rejection. A local comprehensive plan, usually referred to as a “comp plan,” is the road map for a community’s future development, and theoretically is to be followed by elected officials to assure that development is compatible with the plan and with the community’s resources and desires.

Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent crafting these plans in order to provide for orderly, affordable growth, and to ensure that our communities aren’t swamped by tidal waves of out-of-control development. But in much of Florida, it hasn’t worked out that way. Too many city and county commissions are too willing to blindly approve developer-backed changes to comp plans. After all, in Florida the business of land development is politics. Over the years, developers in this state have virtually taken control of the political process through the use of generous campaign contributions.

Amendment 4 will give the people a vote on growth, and that, in turn, should permanently alter the existing dynamic between developer and politician. Our local situation provides a classic case study: Condo project after condo project going belly up and sitting empty in the center of downtown Miami, which was supposed to become a pedestrian-friendly mecca. Take a drive around downtown on an evening with no events at the Arsht Center or the American Airlines Arena and you will find a ghost town.

Another example, this time at the county level: The constant fight over moving the Urban Development Boundary, which was created in 1989 as a kind of western wall beyond which developers were not allowed to build anything. Today some of our county commissioners don’t see it as a firm law, or even as a real boundary, but merely as a “guideline.”

Here we are, still under water restrictions, and we have elected officials supporting proposals to move the development boundary farther west into the Everglades, the very area that supports and protects our drinking-water aquifer. It is the hydraulic pressure of the fresh water in the Everglades that keeps salty sea water in the ocean and not encroaching into our fresh-water reserves. Marjory Stoneman Douglas must be doing back flips in her grave!

Not surprisingly, Amendment 4 drives the entrenched development machine crazy. It’s easy to understand why. The endless changes, overlays, exceptions, and variances pushed by developers have made them rich, but they’ve also led to the overdevelopment that has heavily contributed to the economic crash affecting us all. Under Amendment 4, these plan changes would ultimately have to come before voters, and we would know best, after all, what is in our own “public interest.”

Here’s a real-world case-in-point: The Marlins baseball stadium that businessman Norman Braman so doggedly fought against would have automatically come before voters for approval or rejection. From the outset of his battle, Mr. Braman said: “Take it to the voters and I will live by their decision. If they approve it, I will end my lawsuit.”

Those opposed to Amendment 4 say it will just encourage more lawsuits like Braman’s, or that we’ll constantly be at the voting booth making decisions on hundreds and thousands of little things.

The truth of the matter is that lawsuits opposing commission land-use actions -- after they’ve been approved by voters -- will probably become a thing of the past. Arguments contending that we’ll constantly be voting on minutiae also don’t hold water. Once our elected officials grasp that the objective of Amendment 4 is to ensure adherence to our comp plan, the number of ill-conceived proposals to change it will plummet. Truly worthy changes deemed to be in the best interests of the community will be strengthened by support from voters.

Here’s another argument in opposition to Amendment 4: “This is what we elect these people to do. Commissioners are supposed to make the tough decisions and look out for our best interest.” Well, we can see how well that concept has worked. I rest my case!

Keep in mind that politicians think short-term -- literally what is left in their term of office and perhaps a re-election bid until they are termed out. (Some communities have imposed term limits on elected officials and others have not, which is another can of worms, especially in Miami-Dade County, where commissioners can be re-elected indefinitely, and where an incumbent commissioner has not lost an election in 15 years.)

Unfortunately, many times elected officials make decisions in their own narrow self-interest rather than in the long-term interests of the community as a whole, leaving residents and business owners holding the proverbial bag when they leave office -- usually a heavy bag loaded with financial obligations. And often it’s not just current residents who end up on the hook, but also future generations.

Take a good look at our elected officials. Too many have not done a good job representing us. On the other hand, they have done a splendid job representing the interests of the sprawl machine. They are directly responsible for much of Florida’s economic disaster. Do we really want to continue with a broken, corrupt status quo?

The U.S. Supreme Court says voters can take back the power when their elected representatives have screwed up. (I’m paraphrasing, of course!) We already get to vote on charter issues and some bond and tax issues. Now it’s time we step up and reclaim power over the growth of our communities.

In the coming months, when you spot a letter to the editor, a column, or a blog in opposition to Amendment 4, Google the author. Chances are that he or she makes a living from sprawl -- lately known by the buzz words “smart growth” or “green growth.” The “say anything” campaign against Amendment 4 will soon be spreading like a virus. Immunize yourself now!

Amendment 4 should be brought before local commissions for debate on its merits, with the objective of having our local elected officials approve resolutions supporting it as a necessary addition to our state constitution and in the best interest of all citizens of the Great State of Florida.

Any takers among our local politicians? No? What does that tell us?

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