NAPLES — Voting for it has been called a move to “put the power back into the people’s hands” and “pulling the pin on a hand grenade for the state of Florida.”
Either way, both sides agree — voters need to make their voices heard on Amendment 4 this fall.
Hometown Democracy, the nickname of Amendment 4, was the topic of a public forum Tuesday sponsored by the Naples Daily News and the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce.
Amendment 4, which will appear on the November ballot, would enable the average voter to weigh in on any amendment to their local government’s growth management plan.
Former state Sen. Burt Saunders began the discussion Tuesday evening by explaining to the crowd of about 50 people that proponents of the amendment believe that comprehensive land use plans are being developed at the will of developers. He said proponents want the public to have veto power over all major land use decisions.
“The argument is that local governments do not respect these plans,” he said.
Saunders said opponents argue there would be a new level of spending and growth will be driven more than ever by deep pocket special interests. Add to that the voters becoming overwhelmed by everything they would have to vote on.
To illustrate the point, Saunders told participants that if Hometown Democracy had already been adopted and was in place during the last regular election, residents in Orange City, Fla., would have faced a 40-page ballot filled with more than 400 initiatives to amend the city’s comprehensive plan.
Andrew Dickman, a land use attorney from Naples who represented Hometown Democracy, said since the Growth Management Act was adopted in 1985, sprawl has not been contained and the public has had no say in that matter.
“Amendment 4 will level the playing field and give citizens the opportunity to vote on plans that affect them,” he said.
Clifford Schulman, co-chair of the Environmental and Land Development Practice of the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig, LLC, took the other side of the coin, saying Amendment 4 was bad for Florida.
“It won’t be just major changes to the master plan, it will be all changes to the master plan,” he said.
Schulman used the example of St. Petersburg Beach to illustrate his point as to why Hometown Democracy won’t work. He said the community adopted something similar through referendum and the result was increased taxes and lost jobs, among other things.
“If Hometown Democracy cannot work in a community of 10,000, what makes you think it will work in a state of 18 million?” he asked. “There were 29,000 amendments to comprehensive plans in Florida last year.”
Schulman argued that should Amendment 4 pass, development on the state’s eastern coast will be dictated by those who live on the west coast.
“This will disenfranchise communities,” he said. “Your neighbor is now going to tell you what you can do with your property.”
Dickman disagreed. He said opponents are trying to pit people against one another and instill fear in voters. He added that some of the amendments to the comprehensive plan would not make it to the ballot unless approved by the county commission.
“This isn’t about swimming pools and fences,” he said. “This is about long-range, comprehensive planning.”
Dickman said not one report done on Florida’s growth management said the state’s growth management plan was working. In fact, he said, they said it was not working.
“This amendment is the solution to the problem,” he said. “It levels the playing field.”
Schulman said he thought it took away the playing field. He said developers will no longer need to meet with neighbors. Instead, they will pay public relations firms to advertise on television to all voters to get their point across.
“This is taking away the rights of close-by citizenry to negotiate with reasonable developers,” he said.
Schulman said Florida needs to manage growth and engage in smart growth.
“That doesn’t mean no growth,” he said. “If something doesn’t grow, it dies and it atrophies.”
Dickman said Amendment 4 is not trying to stop growth, it is trying to change growth by discouraging sprawl.
“Growth management is about planning for the future,” he said. “I envision it as going to the ballot box and deciding what you want your community to look like.”
Schulman said Amendment 4 will bring nothing but lost jobs, lost money and higher taxes.
“Who is going to bear the burden of increasing the cost of government?” he asked.