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Easier to Build?


Finally, someone has taken up the plight of the beleaguered land developer – again. Despite all that has been done in recent years to ease their bureaucratic burden, it appears that it is still just too difficult to make an honest buck in the building game. Enter Florida Senate Bill 372 (click here to read text), filed by Manatee County's own Bill Galvano, which would all but rid them of the few pesky oversight mechanisms that still require a consideration of smart growth standards at the state level. Couple this with other local measures to lighten the regulatory load – like the liberal rewriting of the LDC – and Christmas would be coming early to builders in Manatee County.

When the Florida Legislature convenes on March 4, they will once again open a session at a time when the state faces real and historic challenges. They will have only 60 days to try and address as many critical issues as possible. Even if efficiency were optimized, many worthy bills would not make it to the floor. Only, despite those very real and pressing concerns, merit will have little to do with sorting out which issues are prioritized. In a reasonable world, SB 372 would be just one of many ill-conceived bills that a legislator filed to appease a supportive group of constituents, knowing it would die on the vine. Only it's already sailed through two committees and has only two more to go. Why? Because there are few interests as influential as land developers here in the Sunshine State.

SB 372 would expand on a 2009 growth management gutting to include smaller counties like Manatee and Sarasota in a class that is exempted from state review for designated Developments of Regional Impact (DRI). In other words, it would extend the sort of fast-track process of Manatee's recently approved Urban Service Area to the entire county – even environmentally-sensitive areas like Long Bar Pointe. The argument is that these counties have highly competent planning departments and are better equipped to create appropriate approval processes, which are often more stringent than the state, and that therefore, builders should not endure the cost or delay of going through a layered process.

In reality, any smart growth advocate knows that the smaller the government, the easier it is to buy influence. The math works out quite favorably for a successful builder who invests in buying a county commission majority and then develops friendly relations with the county administration. It costs much more than the average coalition of environmental groups, smart growth activists and concerned citizens could ever hope to cobble together, but is a very small cost of doing business when you're bulldozing grassland to build small cities.

True, the review process at the state level is just north of token, but that's only because the legislature gutted both the growth management laws and the Department of Community Affairs. However, one key aspect of the current DRI process that will be dangerously absent should SB 372 become the law of the land, is the input of neighboring counties when large projects near the border will undoubtedly impact their communities and potentially strain their resources. That is why the Florida Association of Counties spoke (to largely deaf ears) in opposition of the bill at Wednesday’s committee hearing.

SB 372 also eliminates requirements to prioritize infill projects, as if we needed to encourage sprawl even more than we already have. Even though local developers and even planning commissioners have been making the nonsensical argument as of late that increasing density for large developments in rural neighborhoods actually reduces sprawl by putting them all in one place, rather than having people build one house per five acres as far as the eye can see. Anyone with two eyes can look at Manatee County and its tens of thousands of vacant or badly blighted homes and know that more must be done to encourage re-development of the urban core, where so much costly infrastructure already exists.

Developers and the legislators who work for them would like us to believe that all development is good development, rife with construction jobs and tax revenue. But the fact of the matter is that growth is an expensive endeavor which typically costs about $1.25 for every dollar it brings. Also, the people it costs and the people it brings it to are not as evenly allocated. While someone might make the thin argument that once you own your land, you should be able to do whatever you like on top of it, the undeniable reality is that communities are connected in such profound and seminal ways that we all end up sharing the costs of growth from infrastructure (roads, schools, law enforcement, utilities, etc.) to quality of life (pollution, congestion, destruction of ecological or recreational areas, etc.) and even long-term considerations like fertilizer run-off and water usage.

Clearly, we need to be looking to do more to ensure that development projects make sense for all of a community's stakeholders, rather than just an elite and empowered few. Instead, we're busily prioritizing doing even less. As for Senator Galvano, he promised supporters he would be just like his predecessor, current Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett. That's one campaign promise he seems intent on fulfilling. This is just the sort of bill that Bennett would have proposed for his benefactors in the building game, but not the sort that would result in a prevailing benefit for the vast majority of citizens in Manatee County.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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