Sunday, March 04, 2007

Growth Control

Orlando Sentinel article.

Sierra Club backs push to let voters rule growth

The group's $35,000 gift boosts Florida Hometown Democracy, which business groups decry.

Kevin Spear Sentinel Staff Writer Posted March 1, 2007

Backers of a statewide proposal to give voters ultimate authority over new subdivisions, shopping centers and other future growth received a $35,000 contribution and vows of vigorous support from one of Florida's largest environmental groups Wednesday.

The Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club stepped firmly behind the Florida Hometown Democracy campaign, which aims to gather enough voter signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment on next year's ballot. If passed, local politicians would have to win voter approval to change growth-planning guidelines.

"I think more and more people are becoming outraged by how we are growing," said John Hedrick, Sierra chairman for growth issues, who announced his group's support in Tallahassee. "I think people feel cut out of the planning process."

Hedrick said the Sierra Club in Florida has 18 local groups with a combined membership of more than 30,000. Each group has pledged to secure thousands of voter signatures.

Ross Burnaman, co-founder of the movement, said the proposal needs about 611,000 verified signatures by early next year. So far, Hometown Democracy has gathered 250,000 signatures, and about 110,000 have been approved by county elections supervisors, he said.

The proposal has drawn the ire of business associations and interest groups. Among them, the Florida Chamber of Commerce has launched a campaign that mocks the proposal as a "Hometown Democracy Scam."

"It would mean no new jobs and no new roads in Florida," said Adam Babington, coalition director at the chamber in Tallahassee. "It would turn every growth decision into a negative political campaign."

Florida Hometown backers said that kind of reaction stems from fears among development interests that the proposed amendment would make it harder to maximize profits.

"I think the Florida Chamber of Commerce is a little hysterical," said Lesley Blackner, the other co-founder of Hometown Democracy. "It's not a scam; it's about letting people vote. Maybe they don't want endless [population] density crammed down their throats."

Burnaman, of Tallahassee, and Blackner, of Palm Beach County, are land-use and environmental lawyers who joined together in 2003 to start Florida Hometown Democracy.

Voters can get ballot-petition forms online at florida hometowndemocracy.com or by calling toll-free 1-866-779-5513.

The initial effort to get on the 2006 ballot was struck down in 2005 by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the proposed amendment's language did not meet legal requirements. The two lawyers regrouped later in 2005 with revised language that went on to win approval.

Another obstacle to the initiative emerged last year when Florida voters decided that future ballot questions must gain at least 60 percent support to be approved, rather than the simple majority that long had been the standard.

Still, observers say the proposal has a good chance of getting on the 2008 ballot and perhaps a better chance of winning approval.

"I think if it were on the ballot today it would pass easily," said University of South Florida political-science professor Susan MacManus, adding that resentment for growth is "strengthening day by day.

"If voters approve Florida Hometown Democracy, her worry is whether people would vote on complex growth issues.

"Local elections have low turnout, and I think you might have critical decisions being made by people with an agenda," MacManus said.

Tom Drage, lead attorney for Orange County government, said he is concerned about whether voters will want to inform themselves on many complicated issues.

In the past four years, Orange County has reviewed 262 applications for changes in growth plans and approved 125. Those vary from wording changes to reclassifications for intense development.

Tim Jackson, an Orlando planning consultant and vice president of the controlled-growth advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida, said his organization is concerned Florida Hometown Democracy will turn local planning into popularity contests based on who has the most cash for marketing campaigns.

"We're not promoting it," Jackson said. "We are promoting people being engaged actively in their community."

The Central Florida think tank myregion.org, which has business and government backing, recently conducted a survey asking residents to pick from among alternative visions for managing a population that could double to more than 7 million residents by 2050.

Hedrick of the Sierra Club said the survey suggested that such growth in inevitable."That's poppycock," he said. "They are not asking the fundamental question of, 'Is that what the people of Florida want?' "

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