Wednesday, May 11, 2011

NY TImes: Florida Legislature Votes to Ease Rules on Development

May 10, 2011
Florida Legislature Votes to Ease Rules on Development

MIAMI — Just before the Republican-led Florida Legislature finished up its session for the year, it gave developers a parting gift: It pushed through measures that would reverse 25 years of growth management law by loosening state oversight of builders and making it harder for people to challenge development.

Republican leaders hailed the measures as a step toward modernizing Florida’s growth management rules and reducing duplicative bureaucratic regulations. The bills were a priority for the Republican governor, Rick Scott, and Republican legislative leaders who said they would create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Mr. Scott is expected in the next two weeks to sign the package of bills, one of several business-friendly proposals that cleared the Legislature. Lawmakers also provided $30 million in tax breaks to 15,000 businesses, limited lawsuits against businesses, paved the way for prison privatization and reduced unemployment compensation.

But environmentalists and Senate Democrats called the legislation approved last week a throwback to the 1970s and early ’80s, when tracts of land in Florida were gobbled up by developers who put up strip shopping malls, houses and office buildings with no concern for local communities. Developers also encroached on sensitive land, including Everglades National Park.

“It was the worst session for the environment I have seen in 20 years,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. “We saw more bad bills proposed and more bad bills passed than we have ever seen before. Any claim that a bill would increase jobs by decreasing regulation was accepted on its face with no consideration given to the financial consequences or the environmental consequences of the proposal.”

The Legislature significantly reduced money for the Everglades, mostly by cutting the budget of the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees restoration. The Everglades stands to lose $120 million from a decrease in the district’s budget if the bill becomes law, Mr. Draper said. Asserting that such a cut would cause profound harm to restoration efforts, Audubon of Florida has asked Mr. Scott to veto the legislation.

In its last days, the Legislature also approved a proposal that would make it more difficult for the public to challenge development and environmental permits. Developers would no longer have to prove a project is safe. Instead, the public would have to prove that a project would bring harm, a shift that environmentalists say would make it much more arduous to stop sensitive projects like hazardous waste sites and nuclear power plants.

State Senator Michael S. Bennett, a Republican from Bradenton who is a developer and the bill’s sponsor, said current law had slowed the permit process considerably, backing it up two or three years and impeding business growth. Businesses, Mr. Bennett said, were choosing other states because of that.

“Any person from the Keys can challenge somebody from the Panhandle and not have any burden of proof,” Mr. Bennett said on the floor last week.

The growth management bill, which was wrapped into the must-pass budget bill at the tail end of the session early Saturday morning, would undo a central piece of a landmark 1985 law that required builders to help pay for schools, roads, parks, sewers and other infrastructure costs. At the time, Florida residents were angered by having to pay the long-term cost of widespread new development while builders pocketed the profits.

The law would leave the decision about whether developers should pay impact fees to local governments. It also would allow cities and counties to make changes to their growth plans without state permission.

Republican lawmakers said the current requirements are outdated and that communities are much better equipped to oversee development than they were 25 years ago. Local communities, not the state, they said, know best what they need to maintain their neighborhoods.

Environmental groups and Democratic critics said Florida’s corruption-spackled past had proved that local officials did not always make the right choices.

“The reasons we have a growth management law is to allow the state to check against out of control local officials,” Mr. Draper said. “Florida has a history of corruption and bribery among local officials. We have now gone back 30 years and said we will trust our county commissioners to make these decisions. It is predictable that bad things will happen.”

And, Democrats added, Florida needs to increase development about as much as it needs to increase the mosquito population. It was overdevelopment that helped lead to the housing crash, which has now left many commercial buildings and houses sitting empty, they say.

“One reason we have a problem is we have a glut in the market,” said State Senator Nan H. Rich, the Senate Democratic leader, who lives in Broward County. “We don’t need more development and urban sprawl.”

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