Florida Voices: Amendment 4
Around the State
"It comes down to lost jobs and higher taxes. It's an unworkable amendment that will lead to confusion and more lawsuits, and ultimately a system that gets worse and not better.
"What happened in St. Pete Beach will happen in cities all across Florida. You'll have expensive political campaigns followed by expensive litigation that only leads to uncertainty and frustration in the community instead of the better, more well-planned growth that the supporters of Amendment 4 claim to be offering. The more people find out about Amendment 4 and the consequences of it, the less they like it."
-- Adam Babington, vice president of Government Affairs, Florida Chamber of Commerce
"St. Pete Beach voters were told the exact same thing by Florida Hometown Democracy that they're telling Florida voters today: Amendment 4 is simple, it gives the people a say on growth, who could be against that? That was their mantra. The voters of St. Pete Beach, by a very narrow margin, put their faith in those promises and then quickly realized that that's not what Amendment 4 is designed to do. Amendment 4 is designed to hamstring progress, regardless of the costs and regardless of what the people have to say about it. It's a stimulus package for attorneys like Ms. Blackner who sue real estate developers for a living over projects they personally don't like. If this was really about giving the people a say on growth, it would be a different debate. But that's not what it's about. They know it, that's why they wrote it this way. They know they're opening the floodgates for litigation. They know exactly what they're doing."
-- Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy
"Hometown Democracy says we need Amendment 4 because the developers always get their way and this way, with the people voting, that may not happen. But with voting on comprehensive development plan changes, what's going to happen is the developers are going to campaign. They're going to put up signs, do mailers, put ads in the newspaper, they're going to buy what they want. Money is going to win the ballot question. The way I see it, you're actually letting developers pick and choose what they want to spend money on to get approved. So I don't know if the pro-Amendment 4 folks are actually getting what they want. Another problem is, when you vote on all changes to a comprehensive development plan, it leaves municipalities open to legal challenges. This is the real problem. We have one resident suing us over a bunch of issues simply because he doesn't like what's in the comp plan. He's not only suing us over the issues he doesn't like, he's suing us over anything that looks like it might be challengeable in court."
-- Allan Halpern, St. Pete Beach commissioner
"Amendment 4 is misguided and anti-growth. If enacted, this vote-on-everything amendment would send a negative message to business and industry considering a relocation to the state or an expansion within Florida. Commercial real estate developers would look to other states for their projects ... states that would not require an expensive and risk-filled election campaign on major projects, the financing of long delays, and extraordinary legal bills. The amendment subverts a well-established and democratic planning process while threatening Florida's prospects for economic recovery."
-- Jeff Rogo, Government Affairs director, NAIOP of Florida (The Commercial Real Estate Development Association)
"Retailers and small businesses have a lot to gain from Amendment 4 and are missing the biggest opportunity in a lifetime if they get bogged down in Amendment 4 founders' reasons to support it (giving voters control over land development). Though equally valid, in this economy the economic stimulus of market confidence that Amendment 4 brings is our missing piece of the pie. Without it we could very well face a lifetime recession. Let today be the day that small businesses and retailers join their resident customers in support of Amendment 4. When you help us stop our home value slide it will also re-fire your lost market demand and put us all back to work. Everyone wins with Amendment 4 except the political class and the speculators that buy their way into office."
-- Greg Gimbert, small-business owner and Amendment 4 activist
"To put things into perspective, Amendment 4 is the opposite of radical or risky. It merely closes a loophole that lets landholders with influence bypass the comprehensive plan. Residents already vote on every regularly scheduled reconsidered change in their local comprehensive plans (every seven years). The loophole is also equitable to business and most smaller landowners who don't have enough influence with elected officials to push through back-door changes. Once again, no cases can be found that show any permanent jobs created by retaining this loophole -- not in the 20-plus years of this loophole's existence. Finally, the status quo is one of wholesale disregard for local comp plans: you can always bypass it by getting your own commissioners or council members elected. Notice that local campaign funding for these offices has fallen precipitously this fall (as much as 75 percent or more) because land speculators think Amendment 4 will pass. Why waste contributions on people who can no longer convert your worthless swampland into expensive development tracts? This is a taste of the future under Amendment 4. Elections that honest, experienced, and committed public servants can afford to run in."
-- Mark Soskin, University of Central Florida associate professor of economics and Amendment 4 supporter
"Florida has a huge overhang of abandoned buildings of every sort, commercial and residential. And there's tons of growth on the books that could be built today, authorized and ready to go. Our elected officials keep rubber-stamping more and it's destroying our property values, it's wrecking people's quality of life and leaving taxpayers holding the bill because they’re the ones that have to foot the costs for providing the infrastructure and the services to all of this new construction. It's our position that our politicians drove Florida over the cliff, drove drunk with the state, basically, and Amendment 4 will take the keys away in this one area of decision-making. Under the current process, local politicians have the exclusive authority to decide whether proposed plan changes are good or not, they have the power to accept or reject them. Under Amendment 4, they'll still have the power to accept or reject plan changes. If they reject a proposed plan change, it won't go to a voter referendum. But the voters will have the final say ... to approve or reject an action taken by the commissioners. We'd like to think they're going to do their job, but we don't really trust them in this one area of decision-making and we think, since the voters are the ones who have to live with the consequences, they need the final say."
-- Lesley Blackner, an environmental attorney and president of Florida Hometown Democracy
"My concern is this whole notion of direct democracy, just trying to get residents to vote on things that typically their elected representatives vote on because of the kinds of details that are in them and the process you have to go through. It's just very difficult for residents to assume that role. The pro-Amendment 4 people, their message is very simple, it's very emotional: 'Take back control of your state.' The people that are against it, their message is more rational: 'Well that sounds good but what does that really mean?' That's been the challenge of it all -- to get people to stop and think, what are they really assuming responsibility for? Now, a handful of people stay on top of these kinds of things but most people have to work for a living. Most people are comfortable with letting their elected officials make those decisions and if they don't like them, they can vote them out of office. Plus there's just a whole lot of constitutional issues. Voting on individual property changes, you've got a whole lot of equal protection issues there; due process issues. If you, as a property owner, want to do something with your property and you submit an application to the city, they've got standards they have to follow in making those decisions and if it turns out unfavorable to you, then you can go to court. But where will you go when the voters start making those decisions for you? Where's the due process? That's a major issue."
-- Mike Bonfield, St. Pete Beach city manager.
"It opens up the spigot for endless litigation. It's not like local municipalities can say, 'Sorry, we've reached our expenditure limit, we're not accepting any more lawsuits.' That just doesn't happen. There will be very clear beneficiaries of going to a system like this, and probably just ahead of the lawyers will be the paid political consultants that get hired to either support or oppose a comprehensive plan change. It changes the forum of the discussion and takes it out of city hall and puts it in the media's hands and the hands of whoever can afford to campaign for or against a proposed change. Whoever can pay to get their message across will likely be the one to prevail. Our members are opposed to it because there are systematic problems with what Amendment 4 will do that should concern anyone interested in matters of public policy. If it passes where do we go from there? Do we start having voter referendums on whether to raise the parking meters by 50 cents? Or let's have a referendum on how much it costs your kid to play little league. Where do you draw the line?"
-- Rebecca O’Hara, legislative director for the Florida League of Cities
"The prime directive of Amendment 4 is to put all comprehensive plans and comp plan changes on the ballot. In St. Pete Beach, we learned that putting comp plans on the ballot opens the door to costly lawsuits over ballot language, and that there are many types of comp plan changes that folks just don’t care about and should not be forced onto the ballot. As a statewide constitutional amendment, Amendment 4 would force all Florida cities to suffer the consequences of putting comp plans on the ballot, and cities would lack the ability to modify or repeal those rules to suit the needs and preferences of their citizens."
-- Kevin Hing, chairman of the Beach Stewardship Committee of St. Pete Beach and community activist
"Almost all the major editorial boards of all the major newspapers, some of them being decidedly anti-developer, have come out in opposition to Amendment 4. It's bad for the economy and will probably put us in a situation worse than the recession if it were to pass, costing even more jobs that what have already been lost. If we need improvements to be made in the Legislature, we can do that, but the Constitution is not the place for it. It actually takes the citizens' voice away instead of adding to it. For example, in my neighborhood a fellow had a vacant lot on the side of his house with a main street on one side. He wanted to do a little commercial development that was compatible to the neighborhood. So he met with the neighbors several different times and in addition to an office building, he ultimately built a nice little park -- which he didn't have to do -- and a bus stop for the school kids on the corner to be picked up. If Amendment 4 is passed, he won't be able to do that because it would've gone to a countywide vote with people all over voting on whether he can put an office building somewhere that doesn't affect them."
-- Wendell Davis, president of Florida Realtors
Some very responsible good-government groups (1000 Friends of Florida, for example) have raised concerns that Amendment 4 would harm the state’s economy by creating a high hurdle for new development and would make it very difficult for governments to construct or expand landfills, airports, jails, and other important facilities that are often opposed by surrounding communities. These are legitimate concerns. However, Amendment 4 is itself a response to legitimate concerns. The question voters will have to decide is whether the amendment goes too far. It is somewhat like the class-size amendment, which is a blunt and rather inflexible response to crowded schools. Florida gets amendments like these when the Legislature is unresponsive to widespread concerns about real problems.
-- Lance deHaven Smith, political science professor at Florida State University
"The No. 1 thing Amendment 4 does is to build good communities. If you've got a good comprehensive plan that the people say they want, one that's proven to be fiscally balanced and then the city wants to go and change it, then the people ought to have a right to vote on it before it's enacted. That's the part that gets me the most -- that we don't have the power to back up our comprehensive plans, but the politicians and developers have the legal power to change it. Amendment 4 will enfranchise people more in their communities by exposing these changes to them. The way that it is now, the developers and politicians get together behind the scenes, decide what they want to do, then present it to the public and the public's opinion is considered at the discretion of the politicians who have already made the deal. Amendment 4 puts the public in the discussion more. It encourages people to get more involved in the building of their community. It's a total sea change and its wonderful because it puts the decisions in the hands of the people who live there."
-- Rita Miller, community activist and Amendment 4 advocate
"One major problem with Amendment 4 is financing. The traditional methods of financing are bond financing and bond ratings; I don't anticipate bond ratings doing anything but crashing once we have Amendment 4 in place. As a result, we can't do the purchases that we'd like to do out there. Our country is based on a representative democracy and more of a republic in principle. Our Founding Fathers never envisioned us to be a "direct democracy." We live in a republic and we elect our officials. If we don’t like those officials then we need to elect new officials. That’s the way our cities and counties have been brought together and I continue to believe that."
-- Toby Overdorf, owner of Crossroads Environmental consulting firm
"This is just the heat of the campaign in trying to raise doubts, maintain the status quo and not amend the Constitution on the ‘no’ side and on the ‘yes’ side; quite frankly, a lot of wishful thinking in terms of how this might curtail some of the development and corruption on the local government level. Putting the power in the people’s hands is not necessarily going to eliminate the power of the development community in Florida. There’s hyperbole on both sides."
-- Dan Smith, University of Florida political science professor
"The primary misrepresentation is that the litigation in St. Pete Beach has something to do with home democracy. Actually, if we had the structure of the Hometown Democracy amendment in St. Pete Beach, none of the conflict would have taken place. The litigation is all about developers/hoteliers who want to build 12-story hotels on our waterfront and triple the population density of our small community. Many community residents strongly opposed this. The litigation that resulted dealt exclusively with the attempt by developers/hoteliers to submit their own comprehensive land-use plan to the voters without complying with the public hearing requirements of the Florida Growth Management Act. It had nothing to do with Hometown Democracy."
-- Harry Metz, former St. Pete Beach commissioner
"The results from enacting an initiative identical to Amendment 4 in St. Pete Beach are: we've been spending money on special elections, we've been spending money on attorneys, we've been spending less money on planning, which I think is the whole idea of this -- to have better planning. It's just been frustrating for the citizens and the citizens really have spoken. They've repealed a significant portion of that initiative and I believe are considering a complete repeal of it this November. It's ironic, at a time when the whole state will be voting on Amendment 4, that St. Pete Beach will be voting to repeal Amendment 4 after four years of it."
-- Ward Friszolowski, former St. Pete Beach mayor
Steve Brown, who writes this story "special to Sunshine State News, lives in St. Petersburg.