Environmentalists decry plan to do away with Florida DCA listen05/23/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Since 1986, the Florida Department of Community Affairs has tried to prevent sprawl throughout the state, often to the chagrin of developers. Governor Rick Scott is poised to do away with the agency by signing a bill that delivers sweeping changes to the way Florida controls growth.
Earlier today, Florida Fish and Wildlife officers tranquilized a black bear seen wandering near downtown Ft. Myers. Environmentalists say it’s a sign that development is severely encroaching on wildlife habitat. This past session, the state legislature passed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s growth management policies, and environmentalists are urging the Governor to veto it. Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said the new policy doesn’t just ease restrictions aimed at curbing sprawl; it actually encourages it.
"One of the things that the bill is going to allow/encourage is the development of new cities in the middle of nowhere. And those cities in that middle of nowhere is land that is currently habitat for important species."
He said the bill negates the purpose of planning.
"The bill essentially defeats the central ideas of planning and also tilts the process against citizens who might challenge local government adoption of a comp plan amendment."
Cullen said it does this by eliminating requirements like financial feasibility and concurrency, and it bars communities from conducting referenda on proposed land use changes.
"It is obviously an overreaction to the failed Hometown Democracy Amendment 4 in the last election cycle."
Among strong supporters of the bill, HB 7207, is the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber also had a hand in drafting it. Leticia Adams, director of infrastructure and governance policy at the Chamber, said the bill simply streamlines the permitting process, and it doesn’t remove any of the environmental safeguards already in place.
"This gross management reform is not at all going to remove the environmental restrictions and restraints that the state currently has. The state has been a very good environmental steward."
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is that it does away with the Department of Community Affairs, a state agency charged with reviewing proposed comprehensive land use plan changes. It creates a new agency called the Division of Community Development, which would fall under the newly created Department of Economic Opportunity. Adams said this is just a way to kick start the economy by streamlining the permitting process.
"It took, in the permitting process and the review process for projects through DCA was just extremely long. It's something that was, a project would go through the local level and be fine and then it would get to the state level and have objections and we feel that the local governments have a better grasp of understanding what is right for their community."
Supporters also say the bill gives local government more control over development. Rebecca O’Hara is a spokesperson with the Florida League of Cities. She said HB 7207 goes a little too far in eliminating DCA, but the agency has butted heads with communities in the past.
"There are times when cities have tried to make decisions locally on local land use issues and somebody at the state Department of Community Affairs has put their foot down and said, 'no, you can't do that' for reasons that are really not related to local objectives."
David Cullen of the Sierra Club said when it comes to development, more local control with less oversight isn’t a good thing.
"Look up the contribution reports for your County Commissioner races. You will see a huge, huge number of development contributions. I think that this is just begging for trouble."
He added that local planning agencies don’t have the capacity to deal with the increased burden eliminating the DCA would have on cities and counties.
"Not all localities have the capacity, experience, or financial ability to do the kind of financial planning that is currently provided by DCA."
The list of HB 7207 supporters includes developers and the Florida Farm Bureau. Leticia Adams of the Florida Chamber said while those groups weighed in heavily on the bill, all stakeholders – even environmentalists – got to have their say.
"Every time we put out a draft that draft went to House and Senate staff as they were drafting the bill and every time environmental groups will come back with their concerns. During the entire committee process every time, everyone, all stakeholders were allowed to voice their opinions and a number of amendments, hundreds probably, were offered. Some of them came through, some of them didn't, but this, I think, is a very balanced effort."
Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said yes, they got to weigh in, but it’s obvious no one was really listening.
"The fact that the process allowed for input from the environmental community does not mean that it is an environmentally friendly bill by a long shot."
The Sierra Club and several other environmental groups are urging Governor Rick Scott to veto HB 7207, though they say they doubt that’ll happen. Scott has expressed the desire to abolish DCA in the past. The new policies would go into effect July First. Cullen said it’s not clear whether environmental lobbyists will sue to have it overturned.