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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 9, 2004 18 years ago

Hometown Democracy: Special Interest Ploy

We've seen a flurry of media reports recently applauding the actions of an organization collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment that would, if passed, forever change how community development is decided in Florida. By Patrick Slevin

Hometown Democracy: Special Interest Ploy

By Patrick Slevin

We've seen a flurry of media reports recently applauding the actions of an organization collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment that would, if passed, forever change how community development is decided in Florida. The good news is that the initiative has sparked a public debate over how Floridians could better manage sprawl. The bad news is that the proposed amendment would polarize our communities, usurp local government and empower special interests determined to advance their self-serving agendas under the banner of democracy.

The growth referendum is a response to the 1985 Florida Growth Management Act. The law put the Florida Department of Community Affairs in charge of comprehensive land-use plans developed by nearly every Florida city and county. The spirit of the comprehensive plan set out to capture the vision of the community, protect its quality of life and foster public participation to manage growth and land-use changes. But nearly 20 years and two census reports later, Florida has experienced a population boom that has rocked the growth management program.

Today, growth management is constantly confronting new construction, traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, water use, conservation and endangered wildlife. The organizers of the growth referendum, Florida Hometown Democracy, are raising an issue that is important and will resonate with those who are concerned about the future sustainability and livability of their communities.

The big story in the 2002 election was the passage of the "pregnant pig" constitutional amendment supported by animal rights activists. Next year, environmentalists who are the organizers behind Florida Hometown Democracy hope to repeat the success of their People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) cousins. If the Florida Supreme Court allows the amendment to be placed on the ballot in 2004, it will likely pass. And that's the bad news.

The most effective weapon Florida Hometown Democracy will have in getting the measure passed will be exploiting the anxiety of homeowners who are leery of encroaching development, fearing it will adversely affect their property values. A community's desire to maintain the status quo is a natural response to uncertainties that come with change, which often give rise to NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) attitudes. NIMBYism is not really civic participation in a democratic sense; it indicates that the institutional mechanisms currently used in many jurisdictions are broken and discourages meaningful citizen participation in land-use decision making.

The constitutional amendment would usurp the authority of local elected officials by placing decision making on the shoulders of local citizens. Citizens, rather than elected officials, would be responsible for voting on applications for permits, rezoning, site plans, annexation and any other matters requiring land-use changes to the comprehensive plan.

Unfortunately, if this ballot initiative passes, Florida mayors, council members and county commissioners, all elected by the people, will be stripped of their representative authority and will have no vote on matters concerning community development. Hence, the representative form of government at the local level will be seriously damaged.

First, it's a given fact that the majority of citizens often thought of as the "silent majority" are mostly satisfied with their communities' atmosphere, and they are often too busy to be bothered by local government affairs. As long as the local municipality picks up the garbage, keeps the tap water running and minds its own business, the majority of residents are happy with how the government is running. Second, every election year we hear about low voter turnout. The greatest challenge to political candidates is mobilizing voters to exercise their constitutional rights. If the amendment is approved, then every two years voters will decide on real estate matters that will affect their neighborhoods and their community.

But the reality is that most voters will not want to be bothered by the customary land-use changes or comb through reams of data pertaining to permitting, zoning and eminent domain. More than likely, on Election Day, voters will skip most land-use amendments because the process can be difficult to understand. This lack of voter knowledge plays into the hands of the organizers and supporters of Florida Hometown Democracy, who are counting on voter apathy to pass their self-serving programs.

The proposed initiative is a strategic maneuver to position an elite few so they can pass environmental policies without the checks and balances provided by our elected officials. Tampa land-use attorney Ron Weaver, who chairs the Public Affairs Committee for the National Association of Industrial Office Properties, says, "There are 12,000 plan amendments each year in Florida, and government staff carefully review the effects each amendment will have on the community To expect the public, however well intentioned, to be able to gauge what they're really shooting down, such as building hospitals, charter schools or retail projects needed near recently built homes, is too much to ask."

State and local governments spend millions of dollars every year on staff, research and analysis on land-use development to make informed decisions. Moreover, our elected officials are charged with basing their land-use decisions on statute, merit, evidence, expert testimony, public comment and overall community benefit. At the end of the day, developers, conservationists and obstructionists do not get everything they want, which probably shows that comprehensive plans and growth management are working.

Any hope of solving the issue of growth management in Florida really hinges on bringing people together to find solutions that will help to resolve the conflicts between growth and stability. The present effort, however, will not produce meaningful public participation in growth management.

Florida Hometown Democracy's plan for voters to decide on land-use matters will not serve the public good but will instead drive a wedge between groups of citizens for the benefit of individuals or groups whose primary interest may well be power and profit. The growth referendum submitted by the Florida Hometown Democracy will reward only those whose agendas do not serve community interests.

It is not too late to avoid disaster, nor is it too soon to build community bridges within the current system of representative government. Let the debate continue with vigor, but let's examine the proposed amendment carefully and act to preserve the interests of the people.

Patrick Slevin is a former mayor of Safety Harbor. He is president of MediaMax Campaigns, a Tallahasse-based public relations firm specializing in controversial land-use projects. This article appeared in the summer edition of The Journal of the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based think tank.

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