Capital Column: Cabinet decision has statewide growth impact

— The case may have been about a piece of central Florida horse country, but a unanimous vote cast last week by Gov. Charlie Crist and the cabinet sent a loud message to local governments and developers from Pensacola to Naples.

Siding with a pair of small horse farm owners, Crist and the cabinet rejected a request by Marion County officials to approve an 800-home development for the simple reason that it wasn’t needed to accommodate future growth as mapped out in the county’s comprehensive plan.

The closely watched case has become the poster child for similar requests flooding the Department of Community Affairs in advance of an upcoming vote on the Hometown Democracy amendment. Amendment 4, if approved in November 2010, would require voter approval of all comprehensive plan changes.

DCA Secretary Tom Pelham urged the cabinet to uphold the administrative law judge’s ruling that the Marion County development did not comply with a provision within its comprehensive plan that requires the applicant to prove that additional housing is needed.

Pelham’s comments in Tallahassee came less than a week after he and others were in Lee County to debate doing away with the needs requirement that has been part of growth management procedures going back to the 1980s.

With Florida’s development-driven economy in the doldrums, a growing group has called for making it easier to build and harder for citizens to contest growth plan changes.

“To do that would send a terrible message to the citizens of this state,” Pelham said. “The message would be: “Don’t bother. You can participate all you want at the local level but up the line, the system is not going to protect your rights.”

The specific case involves a 2007 request by Marion County officials to amend their comprehensive plan to allow development of a 400-acre tract in what is now horse country. The amendment was challenged by a pair of neighboring landowners, who successfully represented themselves against attorneys representing the county and the landowner.

The case has taken on greater proportions as local governments and developers around the state prepare for the potential passage of Amendment 4, which, if approved, is expected to dramatically reduce the number of comprehensive plan amendments.

Since Amendment 4 was cleared for the November 2010 ballot earlier this year, DCA has been deluged by requests for comprehensive plan amendments for developments of up to 50,000 units, Pelham said.

Some landowners are trying to mothball a bunch of land in the event Amendment 4 passes.

“The need criterion is more important now than it’s ever been,” Pelham said. “…This case is a stalking horse for much bigger projects waiting in the wings.”

Last weeks cabinet ruling sent a clear message: If backers want to weaken the state’s growth management law, they’re going to have to convince legislators to change the law.

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