Senate Select Committee on Florida's economy's growth management measures excite developers, worry local government
By Risa Polansky
New state legislation relaxing growth management requirements has thrilled developers and alarmed Miami-Dade's local government officials.
Developers are heralding the measures as catalysts for economic recovery and job creation.
Meanwhile, some local government officials are rallying for the governor to veto the legislation they say threatens community planning and viability.
Many of the measures stemmed from the Senate's Select Committee on Florida's Economy, convened this year to identify state-imposed burdens on business and recommend solutions.
"There were several initiatives that came out of the select committee which were enacted and are sitting on the governor's desk," said Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican and Miami businessman who heads the committee.
This includes the Community Renewal Act, which he said "removes costly state concurrency mandates that have made growth and economic activity more expensive."
The act lifts in dense urban areas the Development of Regional Impact review required of large projects.
It eliminates transportation concurrency requirements for developers in some major urban areas, though Miami-Dade is excluded by a late-in-the-game change that acknowledges the county's existing exemption of some transportation concurrency requirements to encourage urban infill.
The act also calls for extending development permits for two years.
"There's no one single action or group of actions that can restore Florida's economy, but our responsibility was to work on those issues where some state action could make a difference," Sen. Gaetz said.
And it would, should the measures escape the governor's veto, said Ashley Bosch, president of the Builders Association of South Florida.
"I'm really hoping he [Gov. Charlie Crist] realizes the importance of all those initiatives for the building community and for the local community in general," he said. "They will get a lot of people back to work."
The measures would get projects moving faster and reduce costs to developers, thereby saving homebuyers money, he said.
Mr. Bosch called the permit extension provision "one of the most direct and impactful measures" in the bill.
It means developers who wait out the recession won't be hit with more permitting fees once they decide to get projects going again.
"That savings gets directly passed on to the end user," Mr. Bosch said.
It's the Development of Regional Impact and transportation concurrency elements that have local government officials riled.
Miami-Dade officials and several area municipalities, including Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Pinecrest and Miami, are urging Gov. Crist to veto the bill, though the county wouldn't be affected by the transportation concurrency element.
"In the end, this county got an amendment that lessened the damage, but from the rest of the state's standpoint, what this bill actually does is it costs the taxpayers," County Commissioner Katy Sorenson said at a meeting Tuesday, adding later that "what we need to do is make sure development pays for itself — this bill would do just the opposite."
Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff called for a veto at a city commission meeting last week.
"What this does is… Florida will no longer require developers to add road capacity in nearly half the state's municipalities and several other counties," he said. Transportation concurrency and other impact fees "really are how cities and rural areas build their respective communities. Without them, you would just have development and you wouldn't have a way to get in, get out. And while they may think this may spur development, it can also be a way of opening up Pandora's Box and leaving it wide open."
The Florida Association of Counties, which protested the measure throughout the legislative session, is also calling for a veto.
Allowing developers to pay a portion of planned transportation improvements in exchange for development approval has offset local transportation funding and provided for needed roads and road improvements, Alachua County Commissioner and Florida Association of Counties President Rodney J. Long wrote to Gov. Crist last week.
He protested that, though the bill requires counties to develop within two years transportation strategies to fund mobility in concurrency exception areas, it doesn't make clear how and provides no financial resources to do it.
"Eliminating transportation concurrency will lead to Florida's residents and businesses actually suffering in the long run." Mr. Long wrote. "Communities that have transportation deficiencies, poor access and excessive commute times are ones that business[es] rarely look to when starting new or expand[ing] existing businesses."
And when it comes to eliminating Development of Regional Impact reviews, the state is asking for lawsuits between communities, he wrote.
"While we recognize this program can often be long and cumbersome, it is the one process that ensures that a project being considered in one jurisdiction does not negatively impact another," the letter says. "With more than 220 cities exempted from the DRI process under the bill, we estimate that 34 counties will have no opportunity to comment on a project approved by a city that impacts the unincorporated areas of a county."
Still, Sen. Gaetz stands by the bill, calling it appropriate action in today's sluggish economy.
Existing provisions requiring transportation concurrency and regional impact reviews "were originally put into law at a time when we were trying to control runaway growth — now we wish we had some growth to manage," he said. "What we're trying to do is tie economic policy to economic reality, and the economic reality today is that we need to create jobs."
He acknowledged, though, that circumstances could change down the road.
"Economic policy needs to be resilient," Sen. Gaetz said. "So if we reach a time again when we have to change policy to deal with explosive growth, then I will be just as enthusiastic about tying economic policy then to realities then."
Builder Mr. Bosch also noted that the state's Department of Community Affairs is to step in to lay down new ground rules.
The bill requires the department, along with the Department of Transportation, to aim to create a "mobility fee" to replace the existing transportation concurrency system.
"I think the Department of Community Affairs office is going to find a better way of dealing with growth management," he said. "There will be some type of measures put in place" to handle the traffic that comes with new development.
"It will be in another light — not the way we've seen it in the past," he said.
The Senate committee on the economy spurred several other measures, many less controversial.
Sen. Gaetz and New Port Richey Republican Sen. Mike Fasano created with about $30 million a revolving fund providing $8,000 loans to first-time homebuyers in Florida.
A new federal law allows for an $8,000 tax rebate for those who buy a home for the first time, but "the problem is that many new homebuyers don't have the $8,000 upfront," Sen. Gaetz said.
The state's new revolving loan fund will help Floridians make down payments, then be replenished as borrowers receive their federal rebates.
Another change born from the select committee: "We did a major streamlining of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation," Sen. Gaetz said. "We downsized and streamlined business regulation so that it is easier to get in business and stay in business in Florida."
Many occupational and professional exams are now offered via the Internet, providing easier access and eliminating any need to bounce between agencies.
"We weren't using appropriate technology," he said. Now, "through this one-stop Internet portal, we'll let government scurry around behind the scenes."
The select committee has existed only about four months and is set to continue efforts through next year.
"We expect to have a full plate of economic initiatives for the next session," Sen. Gaetz said, including examining the 13 economic development programs funded by Florida taxpayers, such as the Quick Action Closing Fund, a one-time incentive that fills cost gaps between Florida and others states competing for a business.
"The select committee has already begun to examine each of those programs for cost per job created," Sen. Gaetz said. "Are they relevant to today's economy?"
The committee plans to weigh whether to kill, change or add programs, he said, "so that Florida businesses, businesses that already exist here, already pay taxes here, already employ people here, can benefit from economic initiatives as much or more than strangers we might need or want to bring to Florida."