This election cycle, as Republicans and Democrats duked it out once again for control of Congress, a smaller-scale but equally significant struggle played out in Florida over a proposed amendment to the state constitution, which would have required the approval by public referendum of all new municipal and county comprehensive land-use plans and of changes to them. Amendment 4 was defeated, but it raised some fascinating issues about public engagement in shaping the built environment.
Florida Hometown Democracy, the group that brought the amendment to the November ballot, describes it like this:
Amendment 4 will give voters oversight control over how their communities grow. Under Amendment 4, your city or county commission will study and vote as usual on proposed changes to the local comprehensive land use plan, which is a blueprint for future development. Plan changes approved by the commission will then be submitted to you—the voter—on the ballot at the next regularly scheduled Election Day. You will either veto or approve them. It’s that simple.
Sound good? Not to everyone. According to the website of the primary opposition group, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, “[T]his … amendment would force Floridians—not the representatives they elect—to decide hundreds of technical comprehensive plan changes each year,” based on a 75-word ballot description. Moreover, the group claims the amendment would “reduce Florida’s economic output by $34 billion annually” and kill some 267,00 jobs, by discouraging development. “[I]n these tough times, the … amendment would cause Florida’s economy to permanently collapse.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but the town of St. Pete Beach, Fla., did adopt a policy similar to the amendment in 2006, and found itself mired in lawsuits. The town government officially came out against Amendment 4.
Is it me, or is Citizens for Lower Taxes a funny name for a political action committee based in Florida—a state with no personal income tax? Despite the artificial grassroots handle, Citizens is all business. In addition to the town of St. Pete Beach and other municipalities, numerous business organizations have signed on with Citizens, including the Florida chapters of the AIA, American Planning Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, Building Owners and Managers Association, and AFL-CIO.
Add to that formidable coalition the Manufacturers Association of Florida, Florida League of Cities, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Association of Realtors, and Florida Association of School Boards. These groups, along with developers and other interests, spent some $12 million to ensure the amendment’s failure.
You have to wonder who, if anyone, actually supported Amendment 4. Many environmental groups, according to the Florida Hometown Democracy website, along with a strange smattering of state politicians from the left and the right. An October St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll showed fairly considerable popular support: 33 percent in favor of the amendment, 36 percent opposed, and 32 percent undecided. When push came to shove, the swing vote swung straight to “no.” More than 67 percent of voters rejected the amendment, which would have required 60 percent approval to pass.
As I understand it, Amendment 4 was a deeply flawed proposition: It would have subverted representative government, and despite its limited scope (the amendment would have placed no limits on as-of-right development) it would have sent a strong anti-growth message and scared away investors. It follows that the state’s business community, including AIA Florida, was up in arms.
But beneath Amendment 4’s many flaws lies a worthy motive. In Florida, as in so many areas of the U.S., a long-standing laissez-faire attitude toward development has caused major economic and environmental damage. Forbes magazine’s 2009 top 15 list of America’s Emptiest Cities includes four cities in Florida, thanks to their exceptionally high vacancy rates. The state’s unemployment rate of 11.9 percent is one of the nation’s highest, a direct consequence of the real estate bust, among other factors.
Popular Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen heaps scorn upon the too-cozy relationship between some developers and politicians, and the lip service both pay to the public review process. “This cynical charade has been going on since the beginning of statehood,” he writes in The Miami Herald. “It’s the reason so many Florida cities look like they were planned by chimpanzees on LSD.” Hiaasen vividly channels the frustration that many Floridians and other Americans feel about the sorry state of their built environment, realizing with the benefit of hindsight the consequences of a burst real estate bubble.
The bottom line is this. Amendment 4 would have been lousy for business, and it would have subverted the role of elected officials. Yet there’s need for reform of the development process, not just in Florida, but in towns, cities, and states across the United States. It’s a good thing Amendment 4 is dead in the water. It’s an even better thing that the public is demanding change.