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Protect land and property rights

September 29, 2010

A two-weeklong state hearing on the proposed Farmton development plan featured arguments about environmental corridors, long-term population projections and bear genes. These are important concerns, given that the proposal would radically alter the character of some 19,000 acres of the 59,000-acre tract owned by a family land trust. But the testimony in the hearing, which delved into such esoteric topics as the genetic similarity of black bears in Volusia and Flagler and bears from the Ocala National Forest, left us wondering where property rights fit into the state's land-use planning process.

Property rights are enshrined in the "takings clause" of the Fifth Amendment, which forbids the taking of private property for public use without just compensation. With all due respect for the black bears' family tree, we think the Florida Department of Community Affairs should show more concern for the landowners' constitutional rights and, perhaps, give a little less attention to how the Farmton development might affect bear genetics in Volusia County.

Of course, the DCA will argue that it is simply carrying out its regulatory mission under state law. Indeed, the DCA plays an important role in protecting Floridians from reckless or rapacious developers who would despoil the environment and add to unsustainable urban sprawl.

But not all efforts to develop rural land pose a threat to the environment or the quality of life for residents. And sometimes the line between legitimate regulation of land use and an unjust "taking" of private property isn't all that clear. In the case of the Miami Corp. and its efforts to secure development rights for the Farmton project, it appears the zealous regulators of the DCA are coming worrisomely close to forcing the landowners to sit on their property. This, in effect, would be a taking of private property in the name of public uses favored by the agency.

The Miami Corp. has owned the property in question, which covers an area in southern Volusia County and northern Brevard County, since the 1920s. Currently, it's used mainly for tree farming and hunting. Under the county's comprehensive plan, parts of the tract could be subdivided into 5-to-20 acre "ranchettes." This type of development also would raise environmental issues; moreover, it would offer limited economic benefits to the county. The owners decided a few years ago to seek a change in the Volusia and Brevard land-use plans that would allow part of the huge tract to be used for denser residential and nonresidential development.

Representatives of the Miami Corp. negotiated with officials in Volusia and Brevard on the Farmton plan, responding to local concerns and making changes that secured the support of both counties. The plan sets aside almost 40,000 acres for conservation, calls for about 6,000 acres of buffers and green space and applies so-called smart growth principles to long-term development that would include about 25,000 homes.

Despite these efforts to conserve land and provide for orderly development, the DCA still said "no" to the proposed changes in the comprehensive plan. This suggests Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon was right when he said, in response to DCA criticism of a proposed development in that city, that the agency was in a "no, no, no mode."

An administrative judge will make a recommendation on Farmton. But the battle won't end there: The recommended order will go to the governor and the state Cabinet for final approval.

The best outcome would be a compromise that balances the property rights of the Miami Corp. with the environmental and growth concerns of the DCA. If the DCA isn't in a "no mode," perhaps the two sides can come to an agreement that would serve the interests of the landowners and Volusia County.