Powerful interests checkmated Florida’s growth management agency

November 8, 2011  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

St. Petersburg Times – May 22, 2011

In its 35 years, the state Department of Community Affairs has irritated some of Florida’s most powerful people, including developers, lawyers, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Farm Bureau and a coalition of the state’s biggest landowners.

Yet since its inception in 1986, state officials have mostly regarded the DCA as an essential safeguard against the runaway growth that damaged the state in the 1960s and ’70s — the traffic cop pulling over reckless drivers on the highway to Florida’s future.

Not anymore, though. Unless Gov. Rick Scott intervenes — which seems unlikely — the budget that the Legislature approved this month abolishes the DCA.

No more would it oversee and sometimes intervene in the efforts of Florida’s 67 counties and 410 municipalities to prepare plans for development. Instead, its remnants would be swallowed up by a new agency that promotes growth, the Department of Economic Opportunity. What’s left of the DCA would exist as the Division of Community Development, where its duties would mostly be limited to “local government planning assistance.”

In other words, no more traffic cop. Instead, the division would be more like the people who hand out maps to travelers.

Yet now the head of one business group that pushed to kill the DCA says the agency really wasn’t all that bad, just unwilling to cut deals. Lobbyists made it into a “bogeyman” as a way to persuade legislators to loosen or abolish rules that drive up costs, he said.

“Whenever you’re fighting an issue, you have to have a bogeyman,” explained Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida.

“DCA isn’t evil. They didn’t do a bad job across the board. It’s that they were just a more difficult agency for the growth community to deal with than they had to be.”

The death of the DCA and the rewrite of the growth law have stirred opposition from a variety of environmental and civic activists. The opponents’ ranks include former Sen. Bob Graham, who as governor signed the 1985 Growth Management Act into law.

But the lobbyist who led the charge for changing Florida’s growth system is Graham’s own former staff counsel from when he was governor. She also was secretary of the DCA under Gov. Lawton Chiles.

The day Linda Shelley left her job leading the DCA to become Chiles’ chief of staff in 1995, “I wept,” she said. “I loved that agency. I loved what they do to help local governments achieve their dreams.”

But now Shelley chairs the Associated Industries council on growth management, as well as serving as the lobbyist for the Florida Association of Community Developers — two groups intent on putting local governments, not the state, in charge of growth planning. She contends Graham and the other critics are wrong about what those changes will lead to.

“Just because there’s not a vigorous traffic cop any more, that doesn’t mean people will start doing 100 mph on the road,” Shelley said. “It’s way too early to assume we’re going to run amok.”

According to Bishop, the man who did the most to stir up anger toward the DCA is Tom Pelham, who ran the department during Gov. Charlie Crist’s term.

Pelham “became a personification of everything that was wrong with the DCA. He ruled with a strong hand,” Bishop said. “He expedited the demise of DCA.”

Nevertheless, Pelham points out, during his four years the DCA approved local plan amendments covering 950,000 acres, creating a potential capacity of 600,000 new homes and 1.5 billion square feet of commercial space — and that’s on top of the vacant homes and offices left by the economic meltdown.

But Pelham’s DCA did shoot down projects.

In Pensacola, county officials voted to allow 6,000 new residences on a narrow barrier island called Perdido Key, nearly doubling the number of people living in a place flattened by hurricanes in 2005 and 2006. The DCA said no because the county hadn’t come up with money to widen the island’s main road for hurricane evacuation, nor had it planned any expansion of the sewers.

And in Taylor County, a St. Petersburg surgeon, J. Crayton Pruitt, proposed building a massive hotel-condo-marina complex with a channel dredged through a state aquatic preserve. County officials, to accommodate him, proposed making small changes to their growth plan, which would mean it would avoid review by the DCA.

The agency said this was bending the rules and sued. Pruitt dropped the marina and channel. He’s still working on getting permits for the rest.

Pelham contends the DCA was done in primarily because he crossed the state’s biggest landowners on making rules for how rural areas in Central and South Florida are developed.

“When I came into office, I found waiting for me all the large landowners with huge new plan amendments converting lots of rural land into urban development,” Pelham said. That included such big names as Alico, which is run by state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Pelham’s DCA instituted rules the big landowners didn’t like, rules the DCA said were necessary to protect rural land from being overrun by sprawl. So they joined with the Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Farm Bureau to file a legal challenge.

“They made all their extravagant claims and lost on every point,” Pelham said.

The judge ruled for the DCA, but the changes the Legislature made will wipe out that decision, Pelham said.

“It will open the door for them to do everything they wanted to do,” he said.

Posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.