Hometown democracy or hometown chaos? Corrupt developer-controlled local officials versus anti-growth zealots?
The rhetoric and name-calling is escalating from both sides in the debate over Hometown Democracy’s proposal to amend the Florida Constitution to require voter approval of every local comprehensive plan amendment. Unfortunately, the Draconian nature of the proposal and the extreme reaction from some opponents is obscuring a real problem.
State-mandated local comprehensive plans are the “constitution” for land use; they govern local decisions about when, where and how development may occur. These plans are required to cover a planning horizon of at least 10 years, but they may be amended as provided in the state’s Growth Management Act.
According to the sponsors of Hometown Democracy, local plans are being amended much too frequently, and usually at the behest of developers. Thus, they argue that local plans are not controlling growth and that citizens cannot effectively participate in the amendment process.
The Hometown Democracy campaign has called attention to a serious problem: growing citizen dissatisfaction with the local planning process and especially the frequency of plan amendments.
Originally, the Growth Management Act allowed local plans to be amended only two times each year. Subsequently, however, the Legislature has enacted 32 exceptions to the twice-a-year limitation. Additionally, many local governments have developed a habit of considering and adopting dozens of plan amendments every six months. For example, in 2005 alone, Florida’s local governments adopted more than 8,000 plan amendments.
Local plans must be subject to amendment to respond to changed conditions, but plan amendments have become the rule rather than the exception.
As a result, the local plan is constantly changing, offers little stability or predictability, and has diminished credibility with the public. Instead of the 10- or 20-year visions they were supposed to represent, local comprehensive plans are in danger of becoming little more than six-month suggestions.
It is not surprising that many citizens have lost faith in the ability of local comprehensive plans to control growth and development.
To this very real problem, Hometown Democracy offers an extreme, impractical solution. It would require a public referendum on every plan amendment no matter how small or insignificant.
The requirement would encompass not only amendments that seek to change the fundamental policies of a local plan, but also changes – large and small – to the future land use map, to the permissible uses on a specific parcel of land and even to amendments to correct scrivener’s errors.
The citizens of Florida have the power to give themselves the right to vote on every proposed local comprehensive plan amendment. But do we really want or need this right?
Do we want to subject ourselves and our local governments to the considerable expense of frequent special or general elections on plan amendments? Do we want the entire electorate of a county to decide in an election whether a gas station should be allowed on a quarter-acre plot of land at a particular intersection?
Do we want to require a referendum vote on proposed amendments to increase protection of environmentally sensitive lands? Do we want to delay the adoption of plan amendments that are necessary for important public projects?
Do we want to establish a system where only the wealthy can afford to apply for and wage an election campaign in favor of a proposed plan amendment?
These questions suggest just how disruptive the Hometown Democracy proposal will be if it is amended into the Florida Constitution.
The Draconian nature of the Hometown Democracy proposal should not blind us to the problem it seeks to cure. Rather than denying the problem and demonizing the proponents of the proposal, elected officials at the state and local level, as well as landowners, developers and other citizens, should acknowledge and seek workable solutions to the problem.
There are more measured and practical solutions than the meat ax wielded by Hometown Democracy. First, the state and local legislatures could limit the frequency of plan amendments. The state Legislature could begin by repealing some or all of the 32 exceptions to the current twice-a-year limitation.
Another way to discourage the frequency of plan amendments would be to require an extra-majority vote for some types of plan amendments.
Regarding the use of referenda, state and local legislatures could limit their use to certain kinds of amendments. For example, only amendments that change an urban growth boundary or that are necessary for the approval of large publicly financed projects such as airports would be subject to referendum approval.
These approaches are not without controversy, but they are more practical than requiring voter approval of all plan amendments. More importantly, the adoption of such measures may persuade voters that Hometown Democracy is no longer needed because state and local officials have solved the problem in a more responsible manner.
Thomas G. Pelham is secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs.