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/1/09 - Sarasota Heral Tribune

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Politics Today: Crist signs controversial growth bill

H-T Capital Bureau reporter Lloyd Dunkelberger reports that Gov. Charlie Crist just signed into law a controversial change to the state's growth management practices.

According to the governor's office:

The Community Renewal Act was taken up as a means to stimulate Florida's economy and create jobs for our people.  The Community Renewal Act does the following:

 1.   The bill incentivizes entrepreneurs to undertake economic development projects in designated urban areas.

2.   The bill directs a study of a mobility fee system to replace proportionate share payments paid by developers for transportation impacts. 

3.   The bill also allows economic development projects to stay "in the pipeline" by extending the validity of development permits for two years. 

4.   The bill makes changes to our affordable housing programs to ensure affordable homes are available for those in need, including young adults leaving the state foster care system.

5.   Finally, the bill encourages green building and storm resistant construction.

Here is background on the bill from a story written by H-T reporter Dale White last month, headlined "Growth bill seen as needed incentive, or blatant sellout" :

It was the ultimate 11th-hour surprise.

With just minutes to go in the 2009 session, state legislators revived and passed one of the biggest changes to Florida's growth laws in decades.

The sweeping bill, which Gov. Charlie Crist is soon expected to sign into law, will:

* Automatically allow developers in seven of Florida's 67 counties and nearly half of its 410 municipalities to add more residents and traffic without expanding or adding roads. They will instead pay a fee, which the state has yet to decide how to calculate.

* Enable other counties and municipalities to designate urban areas where they, too, can overlook new developments' impact on roads, if they choose.

* Eliminate reviews by state and regional regulators of major urban developments that could impact roads and services in nearby cities and counties.

Builders and lawmakers see the bill as an incentive to build in urban areas because builders would still have to pay for new roads and other impact fees associated with rural areas. They also say it will make it faster to develop property, boosting the economy.

But watchdog groups decry it as a blatant sellout to developers, the kind of profit-driven policy that has created problems in Florida for decades.

By not forcing developers to deal with the traffic problems created by their construction, the state will dump road widenings, traffic signals and other costly byproducts of construction into the laps of local governments, who are already struggling to keep up with basic services.

And by eliminating regional and state oversight on some of the biggest projects, it will be far more difficult to streamline the impact of those projects on schools, highways and other regional institutions.

"If Charlie Crist wants to avoid being called Governor Gridlock, he should think twice about signing this bill into law," said Dan Lobeck, president of Sarasota County-based Control Growth Now. "This is terrible legislation. The Legislature is telling us traffic congestion is good for us."

But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, himself a real estate developer, said he expects Crist to sign it.

"Growth management is tough," Bennett said. "No matter what you do, someone is upset."

The bill removes transportation impacts as a factor in development approvals in cities and counties averaging at least 1,000 residents per square mile.

Pinellas, Broward, Seminole, Miami-Dade, Orange, Duval and Hillsborough counties qualify. Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties do not. Yet, with the exception of North Port, every municipality from Palmetto to Punta Gorda does.

The bill allows counties and cities that are not automatically eligible to avoid the transportation requirements by creating exception areas in their growth plans.

Current law allows them to do so, but only with the Florida Department of Community Affairs' consent.

Bennett said the bill also reinforces all local governments' right to opt out of its provisions by adopting their own laws about how to deal with the traffic impacts of new developments.

Even so, the bill's effects are expected to be deep and far-reaching.

Sprawl, infill or both?

To comply with growth rules now, a developer may be required to add turn lanes to an existing road or even build a new road.

For example, Manatee County is requiring Wal-Mart to help with intersection improvements because of a Super Wal-Mart on University Parkway.

Edie Ousley, spokeswoman for the Florida Home Builders Association, contends that growth rules regarding transportation have largely "prevented urban infill and created sprawl situations" -- particularly with residential development.

Meeting road capacity requirements in urban areas can be costly, said Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a group that monitors growth issues. As a result, Florida has seen developments sprout farther from its cities -- in areas where existing highways can accommodate more cars or, if a road must be built or expanded, land is cheaper.

Bennett cited the Parrish area in Manatee County, where growth has exploded, as an example of suburbia spreading across former pastures and groves.

Now state growth laws have kicked in and developers who want to continue to build in Parrish must help pay for expanding U.S. 301.

Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash said Bennett's bill could boost the redevelopment of blighted cities and result in more transit- and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. "The key is to redevelop in a way that is less dependent on the automobile."

But Lobeck dismissed the idea the bill will swap sprawl for infill development.

"To say this will stop suburban sprawl is a sham," Lobeck said. "There is nothing in the bill to restrict sprawl in rural areas."

Cash instead of asphalt

Pattison's organization thinks the Legislature erred in defining 1,000 people per square mile as a "dense urban land area."

Counties and cities with an average density of just one home per acre will qualify, he said.

Douglas Porter of the Growth Management Institute, a think tank in Maryland, warned the bill may allow dense development in the wrong areas.

Yet he saw merit in the argument that transportation requirements that are too demanding may drive development into the countryside instead of "the very places you want it."

Pattison said it is unclear whether the legislation could encourage annexations, as developers try to get their properties included in qualifying cities.

In some cases, annexations of undeveloped land could cause some urban areas to fall below the 1,000 person-per-square mile minimum, Pattison said.

Instead of being required to lay asphalt, the bill requires urban developers to pay a "mobility fee."

By Dec. 1 state regulators must determine how the fee can be calculated and spent.

Bennett said the goal is to replace the transportation impact fees that many counties and municipalities now impose on new construction. He wants a fee that better accounts for a specific development's traffic impacts.

A McDonald's, for example, mainly caters to its surrounding neighborhoods and does not attract cross-town traffic like some other commercial enterprises, Bennett said. Its mobility fee should be adjusted accordingly, he said.

Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton warned that if the fees are inadequate, existing taxpayers will be subsidizing growth.

Fewer levels of review

Bennett's bill also changes the rules for "developments of regional impact" in urban areas.

Generally speaking, DRIs are big developments that affect areas beyond the city or county where they are located.

Riviera Dunes, an approved development in Palmetto that includes riverfront highrises, is a DRI within a city. Lakewood Ranch and Palmer Ranch are prominent examples of DRIs in unincorporated areas.

Currently, DRIs must be reviewed not just by the local jurisdiction but a regional planning council and the state.

Developers complain that the review process is cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. Depending on the project's size and scope, a developer may pay from $250,000 to millions in fees for DRI approval.

Bennett's bill strips away regional and state planning reviews for DRIs where local governments will disregard transportation impacts.

"We're getting away from all the bureaucracy," Bennett said, adding that so many agencies did not need to review the same plan.

Yet less oversight concerns groups that prefer firm growth controls. Sarasota could approve a 10,000-home development that congests Manatee County's roads, Pattison said. Although they may have good reason, other authorities would not be able to modify or stop the project.

"What are you going to do for these cross-jurisdictional impacts?" Pattison said.

The DRI exemption worries Thaxton as well.

"That is a monumental and catastrophic step