This article was originally printed in the Venice Gondolier.
BY BILL EARL GUEST COLUMNIST
Do you think Sarasota County is growing too fast? Do you think there is too much traffic congestion?
Do you think our environment is at risk? Do you think the cost of growth, including the pollution of Roberts Bay and Lemon Bay, is too high?
Most of your neighbors think so too. It is painfully obvious that growth problems are getting worse, not better, in Sarasota County.
The problem is that the playing field is not level for citizen input into county growth management decisions. Special interests, with their platoons of highly paid, full-time lobbyists, lawyers and consultants, drown out and wear down even those citizens who try to express their concerns at public meetings and hearings. The result is rapid and costly growth.
A grassroots group of your neighbors called Citizens for Sensible Growth is sponsoring two amendments to county law that will help county government hear and act on the growth concerns of its citizens.
The first amendment requires county government to seek voter approval before committing your tax dollars to subsidize growth and sprawl.
The second amendment requires a super-majority vote (four out of five votes instead of the current three out of five) by the county commission to approve major decisions increasing land density or intensity.
These amendments require greater oversight of major land-use decisions by county commissioners and by voters.
Sarasota County voters have the power to add these amendments to county law if they sign 12,030 petitions asking that they be placed on the ballot. If voters then approve them in the November 2006 election, they become county law.
Our sensible-growth amendments have been endorsed by the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations, Sarasota County Audubon, Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club and other public interest groups.
The special-interest opposition is well heeled, and they and their advocates are trying every trick in the book to defeat the sensible-growth amendments.
They will tell you that sensible growth hurts affordable housing; that jobs will be lost; that our economy will suffer; and that growth management is too complicated for average citizens to understand.
None of it is true.
So, how do we reduce traffic congestion, relieve our tax burdens, protect the environment and still grow? It is actually not all that difficult.
We do it by encouraging growth in walkable neighborhoods near existing roads, parks and schools.
We do it by encouraging infill development and the redevelopment of half-empty shopping centers and rundown neighborhoods near existing water, sewer and public transportation facilities.
We do it by discouraging development on rural lands.
We do it by making developers provide the public facilities required to service their private development projects.
If the answer is so obvious, so simple and so sensible, why aren’t we already doing it? Because infill development and redevelopment are just not as easy or as profitable as bulldozing rural lands.
So, special interests and those supporting them may say they are concerned about affordable housing, jobs, the economy and the environment; or that if citizens are unhappy, they should vote county commissioners out of office.
Don’t believe them. Our amendments aren’t about current county commissioners or how they vote. They may even say our amendments are undemocratic. Don’t believe that either. Our amendments will increase representation by our citizens and lessen the influence of special interests. Nothing could be more democratic.
Our sensible-growth amendments are about fixing a system in which special interests drown out citizen input on growth issues. We must level the playing field by adopting the sensible-growth amendments.
The time to act is now. We need your help in signing and collecting petitions.
To learn more about Citizens for Sensible Growth, our political committee, and our proposed amendments, go to: www.sarasotacitizens.org. You can read and download the petitions for signing.
For those interested in helping, there will be a briefing and presentation of a short, award-winning film on sensible growth at the Jacaranda Library on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.
Bill Earl is a retired environmental and land-use lawyer, Marine Corps veteran, father of five and past president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations.