Monday night I attended a Florida Native Plant Society meeting in Gainesville FL, my first in over a year. I feel guilty about not attending more of their meetings because I am a founding member and because they are my kind of people. In fact, I ran into Peggy Y there, my longest running friend except for family; we have been friends and in frequent company since the early 1970s.
The meetings are usually about FNPS business and socializing, but tonight’s meeting was different. The group sponsored a debate regarding Amendment 4 that will be on Florida ballots statewide in November. Amendment 4, if passed by the people, would require all Comprehensive Plan changes be approved by voters in the districts where the changes are proposed. For you who are out of state or are Floridians out of touch, the Comp Planning process is in addition to local zoning and is more comprehensive than zoning, and is designed to prevent such bad things as leapfrog development, overcrowded schools and adverse impacts to environmental resources. The list of proponents of Amendment 4 is a Who’s Who of environmental and consumer advocacy groups. The list of cons is a regurgitation of land development interests.
The debate was set up like those run by the League of Women for US Presidential debates, and was MC’d, I think, by an LoW representative. The two pro debaters were an activist named Francis ____ and Alachua County Commissioner Mike Byerly; the cons were Robert Brinkman and the head of the Alachua County Planning Department, Steven ____ (I apologize for not knowing everybody’s last names). All were thoroughly versed on the subject and did great jobs responding to both canned and audience-generated questions.
Yes, I asked a question: “If it is assumed that elected officials fairly represent the will of the few people who take the time to vote, it could also be fairly assumed that Amendment 4 is redundant. What am I missing?” Somehow, Rob was not given an opportunity to respond, but Steve and Francis made good responses. Mike Byerly’s answer, however, was most pointed, replying that most elected officials are from the land development community because most other citizens do not have the time or money to run for public office and often do not even have the time to attend public meetings. Thus, he said, Amendment 4 will give citizens their only opportunity to vote against bad comp plan (land use) changes. In fairness, I have observed that there are many elected officials who are not part of the land development industry, especially in rural counties, but in urbanized counties, the land development industry does indeed hold sway.
In the end, however, the cons made an equally excellent but disheartening point. The comp planning laws are about to sunset – dissolve – unless the Florida Legislature renews them. However, the comp planning laws were passed by a far different legislature than the land development industry-controlled legislature that currently mismanages Florida’s affairs. Therefore, it is highly likely that next year’s legislature will allow comp planning to evaporate, plus the debate cons claimed that passage of Amendment 4 would make that likelihood even more of a certainty. Florida will still have zoning laws, so we won’t go the way of Texas, but those of us who love Florida’s nature bounty and a high quality of life in rural areas are afraid, very afraid.