By Charles Lee: Imagine a five-way intersection in the busiest part of town — without stop signs, traffic lights, or a cop to direct traffic. Well, that’s Florida’s growth without the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
The department — the state’s growth-management agency — is up for reauthorization or extinction under a government sunset provision that requires a decision by the Legislature. The agency has been held in that limbo for two years now. Some legislators seemingly beholden to special interests would just as soon see the state’s growth traffic cop go away.
The DCA reviews comprehensive-plan amendments proposed by cities and counties. It protects millions of acres of precious Florida landscape controlled by “Areas of Critical Concern” designated by the Governor and Cabinet in the Green Swamp, Florida Keys and Big Cypress. The agency also reviews mega-developments known as “Developments of Regional Impact” or DRIs.
To hear the critics of the agency tell it, they would have you believe that the whole recession in real-estate sales and land development has something to do with the Department of Community Affairs. But the stark truth is that the massive run-up of the real-estate market and approval of hundreds of thousands of housing units from Pensacola to Key West happened under the agency’s oversight.
In reality, the department’s typical reaction is not to say “no” to development. A Volusia County example of DCA’s work can be seen in the 5,187-acre Restoration proposal — a development of regional impact — that includes plans to put 8,500 residences and 3.3 million square feet of other development west of I-95 in the city of Edgewater. The agency initially said “no” but then negotiated with the project developers and environmental groups to assure a better project with more stringent protections for environmental land.
To be sure, I don’t always agree with the DCA. I am concerned about the agency’s review of the Farmton-plan amendments, which would cover 59,000 acres in Volusia and Brevard counties. The plan calls for 25,000 homes and 4 million square feet of nonresidential space on about 19,000 acres. In my view, the department’s initial negative position on Farmton fails to grasp the innovation inherent in a plan that reaches out more than 50 years, and guarantees immediate preservation of the tract’s natural assets through binding conservation easements on 77 percent of the tract. Likewise, I regret that DCA may approve the “Sunwest Harbortowne” project in Pasco County — a conventionally planned marina-oriented development with serious unresolved impacts on threatened species and marine resources.
Nonetheless, in all of these cases Florida’s Growth Management “traffic cop” functions with immense value for the quality of life of future generations. As an environmental advocate in Florida for more than 30 years, I would not want it any other way. The story in this year’s Legislature is this — two bills would do the right thing and reauthorize DCA. SB 282 was approved Thursday by the Senate. HB 7107 passed its initial committee but then has failed to progress. It is notable that the recommendations of the House and Senate committees actually charged with sunset review have all been to reauthorize DCA with little change.
In the House, the “fatekeepers” holding the fate of DCA and Florida’s growth-management program in their hands are Current House Speaker Larry Cretul of Ocala and Speaker Designate Dean Cannon of Winter Park. All Floridians concerned about the future of their state should contact Cretul and Cannon to urge them to use their leadership positions to assure the reauthorization of DCA in the 2010 legislative session. You can reach them here.
Charles Lee is director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida in Maitland.