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Rapid growth is destroying Florida's unique assets. Most residents want a drastic reduction in the growth rate. To satisfy them, a draconian constitutional amendment is being pursued. For state leaders it's decision time. If they don't enact a better plan quickly, the amendment may pass and bring development to a halt.
by MCKINLEY CONWAY, mac.conway firstname.lastname@example.org
My family and I are Floridians, and we know that the Sunshine State is strangling on its own growth.
All of that is a matter of record. Sadly, so too is this distressing fact: The very things that have made Florida such a unique and wonderful state are being systematically destroyed, bulldozed into facelessness at an all-out pace. The exceptional and irreplaceable environment that's attracted visitors and new residents to Florida for decades is now being rapidly obliterated. Unless we act, now, to get a handle on the state's growth, the Florida we love will soon simply disappear irrevocably gone. We're fast running out of time.
It's not alarmist, then, to sound an urgent distress call: Mayday Florida! The Sunshine State's growth crisis is clearly, all too distressingly real.
The Upsetting Past as PrologueIf we want to solve the state's growth problems and the overwhelming majority of Floridians do, I think we must understand the roots of our dilemma.
The prime catalyst for the destruction of Florida's most unique assets boils down to one group: a politically powerful army of commercial and residential builders, who've gained the approval of state and local government agencies from the Panhandle in the north to the Keys in the south.
Nothing is sacred in the face of this development juggernaut. Builders of high-rise condos and hotels are scraping away the dunes and erecting concrete towers that shade the beaches. Irreplaceable forests of native trees and shrubs are being slashed to provide sites for subdivisions and shopping centers. Exploding metro areas are bringing crime and congestion. Astoundingly, a state known for its rivers, lakes, springs and aquifers surrounded by thousands of miles of coast line is facing water shortages.
And how are many of Florida's most influential leaders responding? Amazingly, they're accepting this carnage as inevitable, embracing the general assumption that Florida's rapid population growth will continue unabated into the foreseeable future. Buying into this assumption, however, guarantees that planners never get at the real problem. Instead, our leaders are responding as if there's a leak in the roof, but they're constantly setting buckets under the drips instead of fixing the leak.
Yes, planning agencies do nibble at the problems. Ultimately, though, they fail to do anything close to what is needed. There are no significant programs for substantially slowing growth or installing really crucial guidelines. Consequently, the state's greatest assets are being bulldozed away, while intelligent people who ought to know better are standing by.
Obviously, we Floridians have no other Florida. Moreover, the nation doesn't have another state like Florida. No other state has such a high percentage of ultra-sensitive habitats. To ignore these facts in setting public policy is insane!
Distinguishing BetweenBut I am not making a blanket condemnation of growth of all stripes. It's important instead to understand the critical distinction between the two main types of development that are now underway in Florida. One of those development types boosts the state's quality, while the other rampantly destroys it.
Two Types of Growth
On the one hand, there are the thoughtful development projects that established economic development agencies are pursuing throughout the state. Those agencies' goal is to attract investment in new industries that provide increased job opportunities. In essence, they're building a better future for the state.
Indeed, Florida has a truly outstanding pyramid of economic development units at the state, metro and local levels. I know that, because I have worked with them for many decades. These economic development arms are staffed by intelligent managers, enabled by extensive data, and backed by strong, civic-minded boards.
There's no group, in fact, more aware than Florida's economic development units of the state's strong public opposition to rapid growth. That leaves the state's economic development forces at a handicap in competing for business expansions with other states in which opposition to growth is far less pronounced. As a result, Florida sometimes drops out of the running for some of the best potential corporate expansion projects, which are shot down by citizen opposition.
But Florida's economic development agencies know full well that reducing population growth does not mean that all development must stop. Far from it! They know that an intelligent growth control plan requires that certain types of development be minimized, while other types are maximized.
Florida will always be eager to attract high-tech scientific activities that provide high-salaried positions and register low environmental impact. Many types of desirable professional operations fit those criteria.
And Florida's development arms are continually taking proactive steps to attract those projects. For example, they're collaborating with strong universities to set a high standard in the development of science-based industry incubators, research parks, and high-tech science links and corridors. That is precisely the kind of thinking that needs to be amplified in many state programs at least if we want to sustain Florida's one-of-a-kind character.
Florida's economic developers will promote new breakthroughs. We hope that the state will take the lead in promoting and subsidizing new industries that consume municipal and other wastes of all kinds. Alternate energy sources should be a high priority.
There are other obvious steps as well we can take to ensure a better Florida. The state's future must also include clean-up, fix-up and beautification programs for the countryside. Florida must get rid of abandoned vehicles, enclose outdoor storage, reduce farm clutter, and pick up roadside litter. It's a lot easier to sell a beautiful Florida than an ugly Florida.
If Florida redirects its promotion efforts in those directions, we'll see a welcome change: The state's already strong appeal to the most desirable companies will become even greater than it is today.
Negative Forces at Work
“Rapid population growth is not a sign of progress, as many believe. In Florida's case, it is just the opposite.”That brings us to the other type of development that's now running wild in Florida. In stark contrast, this development modus operandi centers on the promotion and construction of subdivisions and shopping areas by thousands of contractors in uncoordinated ventures. Their thinking is that every new resident is a customer for them no matter what. Most of this type of development is plainly detrimental to the state and its future.
Florida's biggest problem is its high rate of population growth. Let's be clear: Rapid population growth is not a sign of progress, as many believe. In Florida's case, it is just the opposite. Florida does not need tens of thousands more retirees. Some large-scale retirement villages, such as Cape Coral, in fact, have changed their focus to attracting industry and creating jobs.
Florida can function quite well and, quite possibly, far better without doling out subsidies for retail, commercial and housing developments. Correspondingly, there must be a reduction of the local construction industry. Tourism programs should stress quality, not quantity. We don't need Coney Island-type mobs. Art and music festivals are infinitely better than motorbike weeks.
Achieving such a vision, though, would require embracing a virtual political heresy: Florida needs to set as its top priority a drastic reduction in the population growth rate. The governor and legislative leaders must be strong supporters of this strategy. A timid approach won't get this big a job done.
The immediate goal should be to cut the growth rate drastically. Instead of recoiling from the impact of 400,000 new residents per year (the present rate), the state might be able to accommodate 40,000 (one-tenth the current clip) in an orderly way.
Political Courage NeededBut how could that happen?
Here are two potential avenues. One of them is a constitutional strategy that's significantly problematic. The other strategy would require a trait that's long been among Florida's endangered species: political courage to do what is needed.
Let's look at these two approaches.
Bypass strategy. Give up on the politicians and go straight to the people via a constitutional amendment: Floridians have been aware of the problems of overly rapid growth for a long time, and they've watched with increasing frustration as years went by with no effective controls being installed.
Unsurprisingly, today they are desperate for action and willing to sign the petition being circulated by the Florida Hometown Democracy group. If the group can collect some 600,000 signatures by January 31, 2008, their amendment will be on the November 2008 ballot.
This amendment would require a vote of the people to approve changes in all comprehensive land-use plans proposed by local governments. It could bring many development projects whether bad or good to a screeching halt.
In my view, this is a desperation measure to be used only when all else fails. Have we reached that point? We'll soon find out.
Persuade the governor and legislative leaders to risk their political careers on bold new moves that will infuriate many groups: Granted, this second strategy presents far more difficult obstacles. It could, however, yield very meaningful results.
This scheme requires a tectonic political shift: Florida's government leaders would have to alter the way they've been thinking and acting for decades. Needed changes will bring monumental confrontations with formidable and well-heeled home builders. Some of those builders will likely be driven into bankruptcy.
What might our political leaders do to activate such a momentous change? Here are a few of the possibilities:
But if Florida's politicians don't act during the early part of 2008, the result may be even less appealing to builders. The amendment will gain support and may be enacted.
Envisioning the Florida of the FutureFlorida's state of affairs echoes an old line from the legendary mid-20th-century comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy: "That's a fine mess you've gotten us in, Ollie," Stan would lament time and again.
“Do Florida's political leaders have the vision and the guts to make such a dream a reality? Just as importantly, do we Floridians?”
But the fact is, we Floridians and particularly our political leaders have allowed the state to get into this mess.
But we shouldn't deceive ourselves about all this: Solving the mess of snowballing, out-of-control growth won't be easy. But it can be done, if we can muster up the vision, the will and, yes, the dreams. Here is my own dream of the Florida of the future:
But do Florida's political leaders have the vision and the guts to make such a dream a reality?
Just as importantly, do we Floridians?
About the AuthorMcKinley Conway's development history is voluminous and distinguished. Just a few of his milestones include founding Site Selection, the first-ever magazine focused on corporate real estate and economic development, and founding two industry associations that set the standard for the industry's professional development the International Development Research Council (IDRC) and the Industrial Asset Management Council (IAMC).
And there's much, much more. Conway created the industry's first development-focused Internet site, SiteNet, all the way back in 1983. And he founded Spruce Creek, the pioneering fly-in community near New Smyrna Beach. For even more on Conway's sizeable development-industry legacy, click here.
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