News / Events

Growth agency vanishes

Pat Andrews, Beacon Staff Writer

July 5, 2011

BEACON PHOTO/PAT ANDREWS
Congratulations — At left, Miami Corp. attorney Glenn Storch talks with the County Council June 16, about awards received by Miami Corp.’s Farmton plan. Behind him are Tim Center of the Collins Center for Public Policy, and Barbra Goering of Miami Corp.

 

By Oct. 1, the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the state’s land-planning agency, will cease to exist. It will be merged into the new Department of Economic Opportunity and a couple of other agencies.

The Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Community Planning, charged with overseeing growth management and changes to future land-use plans, has been reduced by 29 employees. The remaining 32 people will transfer to the new Department of Economic Opportunity.

So will the staff in the department’s Affordable Housing Planning and Community Development, which helps low-income folks, and the DCA’s administrative staff.

DCA’s Florida Forever, the state’s program for land acquisition and preservation, will transfer to the Department of Environmental Protection. DCA’s Building Codes and Standards Division will transfer intact to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

“The silver lining,” said DCA spokesman James Miller, is that DCA’s Human Resources Department has mostly found jobs for those whose jobs were eliminated.

DCA Secretary Billy Buzzett will spearhead the moves, but will not transfer to the new Department of Economic Opportunity himself. He will leave the agency.

The job of growth management has changed dramatically with the economic downturn, Miller said.

“The reduction of staff is basically reflective of the economy,” he said.

Fewer developments are being planned, and fewer land-use changes are being requested.

Then, there are the politics of managing growth and development.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott called DCA a “jobs killer” and replaced the agency’s top personnel. Former Secretary Tom Pelham is gone, replaced by Buzzett, who was previously an attorney with St. Joe Co., a major land developer across Florida.

Buzzett immediately began re-evaluating development cases that were in danger of being turned down, and began discussing settlement agreements. The Farmton land-use plan, which will bring more than 23,000 homes and commercial development to Volusia County’s conservation corridor, was among those cases. Farmton was awaiting a state judge’s decision when a settlement was announced.

“We have removed ourselves from the Farmton administrative case,” Miller confirmed.

One significant change in policy is much less emphasis on the issue of “demonstrated need.” That had been a major component of land-use decisions under Pelham’s administration.

Miller said that focus has changed. DCA will now step in only when a land-use change “affects a resource of statewide significance.”

That shift in focus could affect projects like Farmton, whose planners had promised there would or could be no construction until there is a demonstrated need for the additional housing or commercial development.

Is it wise change or gutting?

Conservationists and others less keen on growth are not sanguine about the changes at DCA. The word “gutting” comes up frequently.

Sierra Club Florida quoted former DCA Secretary Pelham as saying, of the growth-management bill that produced the changes, “It is written almost exclusively in the interest of developers at the expense of other citizens and the public interests.” Pelham, according to the Sierra Club, said most of the bill’s provisions came from business and development lobbyists.

The Sierra Club website, also, recommended that Gov. Scott “take a hike,” both figuratively and literally, in a commentary about Scott’s removal of funding for Florida Forever.

VolusiaCountyland-use attorney Glenn Storch, who has guided Miami Corp. throughout the process of approval of the Farmton project, pointed out that the Farmton development may accomplish what a defunded Florida Forever program could not, because Miami Corp.’s development agreement includes the conservation of much of the land at Farmton.

Of the Sierra Club, Storch said, “They should be upset about Florida Forever. They should not be upset about our conservation of 40,000 acres.”

The Farmton project encompasses about 47,000 acres in Volusia County and another 11,000 acres in Brevard County.

“The real issue for local planning is local planning,” said Storch, who has worked in land-use for 25 years.

Even without the DCA, there are several layers of planning in Volusia County, Storch pointed out, including at the city or county level, the Volusia Growth Management Commission and, for very large projects, the East Central Regional Planning Council.

Storch said Pelham had taken the DCA in the “demonstrated needs” direction. Now, DCA is going back to an earlier vision that encourages long-term planning for what should be developed, and preservation of land that should not be developed.

Farmton, with its 50-year planning vision, is now seen as a statewide model for development, Storch said.

The project won the Collins Center for Public Policy’s Best Practice Award for sustainable development, and another award from the Florida Planning & Zoning Association.

Michael Woodward, an Interlachen attorney who specializes in land-use cases, represented clients opposing the Country Estates at Riverbend commercial-marina project on the St. Johns River in DeBary in 2007. DCA ruled in his favor. Woodward also represented local residents in a settlement in the Walmart distribution-center case in Putnam County.

Woodward is not so comfortable as Storch with the changes at DCA. He noted the purpose of land-use planning is to make communities more livable for the people in them, and to assure development doesn’t happen in the wrong places.

He sees the changes as “the demise of DCA,” whether the agency simply disappears or becomes a paltry ghost of itself. The move of its planning arm into the Department of Economic Opportunity will make it subservient to development interests, Woodward said.

He pointed toward the same institutions Storch mentioned: local governments and the Volusia Growth Management Commission, as the remaining hope to properly regulate development.

“The people are going to have to hold their local governments responsible to make good decisions,” he said. “There will be no passing the buck and saying DCA will handle it.”

Woodward said local governments are smarter than they were 30 years ago, and are less susceptible than they once were to developers waving money and making promises.

Local governments are going to have to look at not only the economic benefits of growth, but its costs to the taxpayers, he said.

“If you’re going to approve more dense or intense land use, you’re also going to have to look at the cost of providing services — more schools, more streets, more fire and police protection,” Woodward said.

The cost of providing these services, plus water and sewage for new residents, will likely be shared by current residents in the form of higher property taxes, he added.

Woodward noted there’s a big difference between land development and economic growth, and between population growth and economic growth.

pat@beacononlinenews.com

 


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