New state growth law has its supporters, opponents

The new growth management approaches enshrined in law when Gov. Charlie Crist signed Senate Bill 360 will help spur the state’s economy as it emerges from the housing slump in coming years.

It will either remove redundant regulations and guide growth into urban areas where it should go or it will completely gut Florida’s growth management efforts, leaving the state a sprawling concrete expanse of strip malls and gated communities.

It depends on who is asked.

Naples Sen. Garrett Richter was a co-sponsor of the Senate growth management bill. The bill designates counties with urban densities - defined as an average population of 1,000 per square mile - “concurrency exception areas.” That would mean developers building in those areas would not have to provide the roads and other infrastructure the new residents would demand.

It also calls for a study of a “mobility fee” potentially to be paid not just by developers selling to new residents but by all Floridians.

“The objective of 360 was to incentivize improvement in the economy,” Richter said at Thursday’s post-session meeting of Southwest Florida Transportation Initiative, a local development-driven group that works to increase transportation funding in the area.

Richter said current growth management laws were crafted in a period of rapid growth and booming economy.

“Right now we don’t have that explosive growth,” he said. “The state budget’s down $10 billion in 21⁄2 years. There are no real estate sales. There’s no sales tax.”

Richter said he believes local officials’ concerns are overblown.

Both Lee County and Collier County officially asked Crist to veto the legislation. Instead, he quietly signed it.

Lee Chairman Ray Judah was at Thursday’s SWFTI meeting, too. Judah said the bill is not about economic stimulus.

“It will further erode the quality of life in the state of Florida and impair the ability to provide necessary services,” he said of the bill. “It was self-serving speculation and self-serving greed, not concurrency, that created this.”

Judah said it was rampant speculation and irresponsible lending that created the housing bubble that burst to leave Florida and the nation in financial distress.

Concurrency is — or was — the state-mandated planning concept that the roads, sewers and other services new development needs is built at the same time the new development takes place. If a road could not be found “concurrent,” then development could be forestalled, as it was for the Wal-Mart planned for U.S. 41 in Estero.

Major developments will also duck the thorough review that comes from being a Development of Regional Impact. A DRI is a massive coordinated review by all the jurisdictions and agencies potentially impacted by a major building project. The bill eliminates DRI review in those urban areas.

“To me this is contrary to good sound growth management practice,” Judah said.

Richter said that growth can be expected to pay for growth, but roads and other infrastructure built with development fees are used by existing residents too, not just new ones.

Judah said the Legislature that just swept $120 million out of the transportation Trust Found cannot be trusted with a new mobility fee.

“How can we be confident it’ll be fully funded?” he asked.

State Rep. Gary Aubuchon of Cape Coral said that the Legislature did indeed sweep $120 million from the trust fund, but said it created new road funding opportunities as well. Aubuchon said the only way to properly fund education and health care was to tap the trust fund.

“Three years ago education and health care was two-thirds of the state budget,” he said. “Now it’s almost three quarters.”

House Bill 1021, which he sponsored, bumped funding in a local government reimbursement program for road projects from $100 million to $250 million and created a similar program for smaller counties with another $200 million.

The program will allow local governments to fund projects up-front and be reimbursed by the state when the funding is plugged into the state budget.

Aubuchon uses as his example State Road 78 on the northern edge of Cape Coral. He carries a resolution from the Cape City Council urging the state to advance the widening on the state project schedule.

“The punch line is the resolution is from 1987,” he said.

State Road 78 is still not completely widened. Now, that project could be done by the city immediately with funding certain the year the project appears in the state budget.

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