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New Law Already Part of Growth Debate


TALLAHASSEE -- Less than two weeks after Gov. Rick Scott signed an overhaul of Florida's growth-management system, the law already is playing a part in a dispute about a major development proposal.

The law led last week to a judge dismissing the Florida Department of Community Affairs from a case that centers on Volusia County's approval of what is known as the "Farmton" project.

The Sierra Club and a New Smyrna Beach resident are challenging the project, which could bring 25,000 homes to a vast undeveloped area of Volusia and Brevard counties over the next five decades.

Also, Volusia County and the landowner, Miami Corp., have asked to apply the new law to the case. If granted, that likely would make it harder for the Sierra Club to win arguments that Farmton should be blocked because of issues such as urban sprawl.

Miami Corp. attorneys said the project would not lead to urban sprawl, whether under the standards of the old growth-management system or the new law. Attorney Glenn Storch said about 75 percent of the 59,000-acre property --- which Miami Corp. has owned since the 1920s --- will be conserved, and development will occur in "clusters.''

"That's not urban sprawl,'' Storch said. "That's what we should be encouraging everybody to do.''

But Marcy LaHart, an attorney for the Sierra Club, said opponents can still show that Farmton would create sprawl, which state growth-management policies have long tried to discourage.

"The Farmton project is still a postcard example of urban sprawl,'' she said. "The law still says that new developments should not create urban sprawl.''

The law, which Scott signed June 2, will transform Florida's growth-management system, shifting more control to local governments and dramatically reducing state oversight. Scott also signed another measure Tuesday that will abolish the Department of Community Affairs later this year and move its remaining duties to a new Department of Economic Opportunity.

Unlike many other laws that include a time lag, the growth-management law took effect immediately after Scott signed it. That led last week to the Department of Community Affairs filing a motion to be dismissed from the Farmton case, which was quickly granted.

Also, the department filed a motion Tuesday to be dismissed from a Lee County case. Spokesman James Miller said he expects the agency to exit other cases, though it is unclear how many.

The Farmton case is pending in the state Division of Administrative Hearings. It stems from Volusia County's approval of comprehensive-plan changes that are needed for the project to move forward.

The Department of Community Affairs objected to the Farmton project last year under former Secretary Tom Pelham, an outspoken defender of the earlier growth-management laws. Negotiations, however, led to a settlement that was approved this year by Volusia County and the department.

The Sierra Club and environmental activist Barbara Herrin filed a challenge in May against Volusia County and the department. It raised a number of issues, including charging that the project would "epitomize urban sprawl at its worst.''

In asking to be dismissed from the case, the department pointed to changes in the new law that reduced its role, saying, in part, that the measure does not "contemplate that the department will be a party to challenges such as those pending in this proceeding.''

Volusia County and Miami Corp. followed up last week by asking the judge to determine that the new law more broadly applies to the case.

The 349-page law makes wide-ranging changes, including the elimination of a rule that the Department of Community Affairs has used in determining issues such as urban sprawl. The Sierra Club pointed to that rule repeatedly in its challenge.

"Now the law is in effect, and there is no (rule),'' said Clay Henderson, another Miami Corp. attorney.

Henderson and Storch said the development had received other necessary approvals from state and local agencies. Storch described the project as a "model" that will take decades to materialize.

"This is not a development,'' he said. "This is a planning vision.''

But LaHart said Farmton will eventually lead to tens of thousands of people living in what has been a rural area.

"The Farmton project is such an extreme example of poor planning that even under the amended growth-management act, it should not be allowed to go forward,'' LaHart said.


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