Politics

Amendment 4: Battle Over 'Democracy'

By: Michael Peltier News Service of Florida | Posted: November 1, 2010 4:05 AM
It’s taken seven years to reach the ballot, but voters on Nov. 2 will finally weigh in on whether they should get a vote on proposals to change the way their communities grow.

Amendment 4, the so-called “Hometown Democracy” amendment, would require local voters to approve changes to their communities’ comprehensive plans to prevent the “development gone wild” atmosphere that became synonymous with Florida in the ’60s and ’70s.

Few measures facing voters in November will have been more contentiously fought, as business interests and many local governments lock arms to defeat the measure, which they say will grind development to a halt and prevent growth, regardless of merit, by subjecting it to micromanagement by the masses.

Opponents face a coalition of environmental and slow-growth groups that contend local comp plans have become jokes, as malleable as modeling clay in the hands of deep-pocketed developers.

Spearheading the Amendment 4 effort is Lesley Blackner, a 49-year-old land-use attorney from West Palm Beach, who has been a thorn in the side of developers for more than a decade.

Since first proposing the amendment in 2003, Blackner and co-founder Ross Burnaman, a Tallahassee environmental attorney, have been joined by others who contend that Florida growth laws enacted in the 1980s are being rendered meaningless by developer-backed changes approved by local officials ready to reap the tax revenue that new homes and businesses bring.

“The opposition to Amendment 4 comes from politicians, real estate speculators and their lobbyists: the very folks who turned Florida into a real estate Ponzi scheme and crashed our economy for the past three years,” Blackner said recently.

Critics of the proposal are numerous, well-funded and include local governments, state officials and some of the nation’s largest builders and developers.

“The status quo is imperfect, but Amendment 4 is worse,” said Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy,  which is spearheading the effort to defeat Amendment 4.

New development that needs a change in the local growth plan would get a lot more expensive – maybe prohibitively so – in part because now, supporters of the growth plan change would have to spend money on advertising and other efforts to convince local voters to vote for the change in a referendum. Many developers may decide the new project isn‘t worth the expense or the hassle and decide not to build.

If approved, local governments could enact a comprehensive plan, or amendments to it, only if the proposal is  “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.”

Backers of Amendment 4 contend elected officials too often ignore the public’s wishes and instead side with developers and powerful business interests, who have frequent contact with government planners and elected officials. Such collaboration has resulted in urban sprawl, overcrowded schools, traffic games and the loss of environmental lands.

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 again 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.

Opponents say 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 ‘techno-speak.’

Beyond the sheer volume, critics say voters are largely unfamiliar with the sometimes arcane world of planning and therefore susceptible to emotional appeals of a well-run public relations campaign. With Florida still recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, slowing government’s hand would be catastrophic, they say.

“This is like shooting a torpedo at the Titanic, just for good measure,”  said Bill Herrle, Florida executive director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Observers say the mood of the electorate this year – an anti-establishment feeling that seems to want to give the people more power – may help the proposal. Backers of the amendment are selling it as a simple question of local control over how the community looks.

Critics, however, have more than a few arrows in their quiver. With nearly $7 million spent so far and $1 million in the bank, Citizens for Lower Taxes, other groups supported by the Florida Chamber, and still others will try to convince voters that a yes vote will mean continuing the economic disaster the state’s already mired in.

It’s one thing to call for trying to get a handle on growth at a time when the economy is firing on all cylinders. But the business community’s argument that a yes vote on 4 is a vote against jobs may resonate in an election year when more than one in 10 Floridians is looking for work.

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