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County back on track for orderly growth

March 8, 2011

In the waning months of former Gov. Charlie Crist's term, state planning officials seemed more interested in blocking growth than in regulating it. But with a new, growth-oriented administration in Tallahassee, the state Department of Community Affairs is showing a refreshing willingness to work with local officials on amending land-use plans to allow orderly, well-planned development.

Volusia County should benefit from DCA's recent decisions to give the green light to two large developments known as Farmton and Restoration.

These projects promise new housing and related economic development. They also promote planned growth, not the kind of willy-nilly, anything goes development that many Floridians understandably fear.

After several time-consuming detours, Farmton officials finally got state approval last week for development on the 59,000-acre tract. The DCA gave the go-ahead for Restoration, an Edgewater project, in late February.

The Volusia County Council is expected to vote on the Farmton plan on March 17. Following the county's approval, the case will return to an administrative hearing judge.

But Farmton and Restoration have cleared the huge DCA hurdle, thus ending long, contentious standoffs that threatened both plans.

For example, after a state administrative hearing judge found the Restoration project complied with planning rules, Tom Pelham, the department's outgoing secretary, surprised Edgewater officials by overturning the judge's decision in late 2010.

The department also tangled with Farmton's representatives, with the agency calling the planned development "too intense." The agency took the opposing side in administrative hearings that went on for two weeks and raised issues ranging from black bear genetics to population growth. Meanwhile, the agency's restrictive approach caught Rick Scott's attention on the 2010 campaign trail. Scott called the DCA's policies a "job killer."

The standoffs on both Farmton and Restoration were disappointing and somewhat puzzling, because the projects were carefully planned to minimize the environmental impact. Also, both projects carry long timelines, with Farmton officials estimating it will take 50 years to build out. Restoration, a smaller plan, will take 15 years.

Under the Scott administration, the DCA was able to get the projects moving forward while gaining some concessions, including enhanced wildlife "corridors" in the Farmton plan. The corridors allow more space for wildlife to move around and migrate. One wildlife corridor will be widened to one mile and another to three-quarters of a mile.

Along with protections for wildlife, both plans set aside generous green space. The revised agreements allow development for the Farmton plan on about 11,300 acres in Volusia County, requiring the remaining 35,700 acres to be set aside in permanent conservation. In Brevard County, development would be allowed on about 1,500 acres, with more than 10,500 acres placed in conservation.

Three-fourths of Restoration's 5,187 acres will be preserved. The plan for Restoration calls for 8,500 housing units -- a decrease of 1,000 from the original plan.

Those are strong set-aside numbers, good for both Florida's environment and local growth-management plans. This careful planning is quite the opposite of unregulated sprawl.

It makes sense to plan well ahead of Florida's growth. While the housing bubble and recession have slowed growth in the Sunshine State, those factors won't limit growth forever.

Florida is a low-tax, warm-weather retirement mecca. The state will grow again. The governor and DCA are wisely working with the private sector and local governments to prepare for orderly growth, both commercial and residential, in the coming years.

 


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