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Backers say Hometown Democracy will preserve Florida lifestyle


Florida voters next year will have a say on how they want their communities to grow.

Lesley Blackner
Lesley Blackner of Palm Beach has invested six years, a million dollars and several appearances before the Florida Supreme Court to get Hometown Democracy on the ballot.

If Amendment 4 receives the approval of 60 percent of the state's voters, it would require local referendums on changes to city and county comprehensive plans. That means every change to a comprehensive plan would require voters' approval.

A municipality's constitution is its comprehensive plan, which outlines the limits of a parcel of land. When a property owner wishes to alter the density, height or usage of that property beyond what the comprehensive plan mandates, the owner must seek an amendment to the comprehensive plan.

Currently, developers must persuade four of seven Manatee County commissioners to amend the comprehensive plan to advance their projects.

But if Amendment 4 passes, developers will need to persuade tens of thousands of voters to approve their plans.

Multiply Florida's 67 counties and 411 towns, cities and villages, and you have a populist revolt. Leading the uprising is Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer who invested six years, a million dollars, accumulated 676,811 signatures and appeared before the state Supreme Court seven times to get Amendment 4 on the ballot.

"The development industry owns our state," Blackner said. "It's the government of the developers, by the developers, for the developers."

The co-founder of Hometown Democracy is Ross Burnaman, a Tallahassee lawyer, who has watched how the state has limited citizens' voices in land use matters.

"In 1995, the Florida Legislature limited democracy by prohibiting any local initiative or referendum on any development order on any comprehensive plan amendment that affects five or fewer parcels of land," he said.

"Hometown Democracy does not attempt to change or circumvent the existing planning process mandated by and set forth in the Growth Management Act," Blackner said. "Amendment 4 only adds one additional step after a proposed land use plan amendment goes through the required vetting and review process of two public hearings and Department of Community Affairs review, approval or rejection of the plan change. It then goes to the voter in a referendum at the next regularly scheduled election."

Allowing the accessibility of the voters in land use decisions is her goal. "I've watched $500-an-hour silver-tongued lawyers defend commissioners' decisions to ignore the wishes of the people," Blackner said. "Developers own county commissioners."

This 21st century Dona Quixote pursues the Impossible Dream of plebiscite land use rule., fighting the mighty forces of the National Association of Home Builders, National Association of Realtors, Floridians For Smarter Growth, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Waste Management, Florida Home Builders and U.S. Sugar, who have spent at least $3.5 million in their failed attempt to keep this referendum off the ballot.

"The best way to protect a community is to give the power over land use changes to the people who live there," Blackner said. "With their unlimited powers, developers have crushed our economy and destroyed our home values."

Leading the battle against Amendment 4 is Floridians For Smarter Growth, a consortium of 33 state and local community and business organizations.

"A big battle is brewing," said Ryan Houck, executive director of Floridians For Smarter Growth. "This is very serious. Not only are businesses threatened, but so are professional planners, environmentalists and labor leaders."

Houck is organizing a statewide effort to defeat Amendment 4 in November 2010. There are 33 local leaders drumming up support to crush the rebellion threatening to turn Florida's power structure upside-down.

Former Manatee County Sheriff Charles Wells was one of the original leaders acting as a chairman, until he retired.

"Voters are smart and will see this is as too radical," Houck said. "If Amendment 4 passes, it will devastate our economy, require voters to study hundreds of proposed amendments. It will end up being planning by sound bites."

Houck said voters only need to look at what happened in St. Petersburg Beach, where voter approval is required to change the comprehension plan. "It has destroyed their economy," Houck contended. "All growth has stopped."

Proponents of Amendment 4 argue that St Petersburg Beach is a success because they changed their ordinance to allow citizens' approval of comprehensive plans.

Ken Weiss is a corporate lawyer who spearheaded the St. Petersburg Beach ordinance that empowers the citizens to have the last say on their comprehensive plan. "It has been very successful," he said.

The spark for change came when developers tried to triple the height of structures in St. Petersburg Beach. "Citizens revolted and implemented rules requiring citizens', not commissioners', approval," Weiss said.

Ten years ago, citizens in Ventura County, Calif., voted to manage development by voter referendum, similar to what Hometown Democracy proposes. Ventura County's program to Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) created growth boundaries which cannot be expanded without getting approval from the voters.

It passed with 62 percent of the vote, and created growth boundaries around virtually every city in the county. The boundaries cannot be expanded without getting approval from the voters.

Steve Bennett, a county commissioner in Ventura County, was one of the authors of SOAR and said the experiment has been a success.

"Ten years of SOAR have been good for Ventura County," he said. "SOAR has accomplished its major goal by stopping piecemeal development of the greenbelt buffers between our cities. SOAR makes it more likely that our sense of community will stay strong in Ventura County."

Florida State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said, "Hometown Democracy is the most asinine proposal I have ever heard."

Bennett, a developer, led the fight this year that rewrote the 25-year-old growth management law, exempting builders from widening roads to handle additional traffic caused by new growth, as well as eliminating the review process for most large projects.

"It's certainly not democracy," he said. "We have a representative form of democracy. People can kick out commissioners if the people do not like them. Hometown Democracy would absolutely stop all growth, because of the time and cost it would take to have the people approve amendments."

Echoing these sentiments is Adam Babington, legislative counsel to the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "Amendment 4 would be a job killer and stifle the economy," he said, "It would politicize land-use decisions."

Opponents of Amendment 4 believe it would be unmanageable because of the sheer number of referendums voters would have to decide on.

"Voters all over the state would have to vote on hundreds of changes to their comprehensive plans in the area (where) they live," Babington said.

"On the average, there are 200 to 300 changes in each municipality, totaling more than 10,000 statewide, for each two years," Babington said. "We are not a fear factory but a source supplying the real facts. From 2003 to 2006, Manatee County had 79 amendments to their comprehensive plan each year."

Multiply Babington's data by two and you have about 150 separate ballots in a two-year election cycle for Manatee County. And at what cost?

"If you're talking 150 separate ballots, conservatively it would cost Manatee County at least $250,000," said Bob Sweat, Manatee County's Supervisor of Elections. "It's not something I'm looking forward to. The system we have is currently not set up to handle that type of volume."

Editorials in a local newspaper on Nov. 14, 2007, and July 5 of this year reported that Manatee County commissioners changed the comprehensive plan hundreds of times a year.

John Osborne, Manatee County's interim planning director, said that in 2008 there were 20 commission votes on amendments to the county comprehensive plan. In 2006 and 2007, there were six such votes in each year.

"If there were only six or eight ballots, there would be no problem," Sweat said. "It would just take a littler longer for the voter."

The Amendment 4 struggle has consumed Blackner and her family.

Her husband Richard Stone is a law professor at Florida State University. Their oldest son, Clayton, 13, is very protective of his mother and has demanded of her vocal critics at public meetings to "Don't be so mean to my mother." Even their younger son, Bennett, 5, has responded to parental commands with, "I'm going to start a petition drive."


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