Is Amendment 4 Good for Northwest Florida?
Amendment 4 has the power to change the way cities are built in Florida. Businesses and environmental groups see the measure from vastly different viewpoints. Which is right? What is better for business?
To Build Or Not? Amendment 4 — which would require that significant changes to local comprehensive plans be approved by voters — is drawing passionate opinions both for and against By John Kennedy Originally published in the OCt/Nov 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
Sure there’s a governor’s race. A U.S. Senate contest and countless battles for the Legislature and Congress also are dominating Florida’s airwaves and inboxes.
But among the state’s big-ticket campaigns is the one being fought over a constitutional proposal — Amendment 4.
The so-called Hometown Democracy measure that will appear on the Nov. 2 general election ballot has forged an alliance between big business groups, unions and local governments opposing the idea. They warn that the measure, if approved by 60 percent of Florida voters, will bring an economic ice age to the state.
Supporters, including most of the state’s major environmental organizations, counter by saying it is a needed check on political power and runaway growth and simply puts government planning decisions back in the hands of voters.
Amendment 4 would require that changes to local-government comprehensive plans be approved by voters in a local referendum. Simple zoning changes that comply with local standards won’t be affected.
Backers of the measure say the big stuff that can change the landscape and tenor of a community will be forced before voters, thereby giving meaning to comp plans, which are too easily amended by city or county commissioners.
It also would break the stranglehold that critics say developers often have on elected officials, who OK comp-plan changes sought by the same developers who finance their election campaigns.
Builders and developers have already raised millions of dollars to fight the measure, warning it will severely damage Florida’s economy and its ability to respond quickly to new development opportunities. By contrast, supporters are waging a relatively low-budget campaign, helped by such backers as former Gov. Buddy MacKay and dozens of local environmental groups.
Weighing the issue, the warring sides want you to put some things on the scale:
"The only reason not to support the Hometown Democracy Amendment is if you like seeing unchecked urban sprawl; if you like to sit in traffic on a road that wasn’t built for the proper capacity in time; if you enjoy seeing wildlife suffer because there isn’t any place else for them to go." — The Sierra Club
Direct democracy can work: Voters should be able to make major growth decisions that affect their communities. Supporters ask: Why should voters delegate that decision to the majority of a city or county commission? Giving all city or county voters an opportunity to vote on a proposal also will blunt the power that a select group of residents or neighborhoods might be able to bring for or against a development idea.
Builders have too much power: The organizations fighting Amendment 4 make money off adding more homes and shopping centers in Florida — with critics saying that such moves are sometimes made whether they’re really needed or not. Giving voters a say would at least force big planning decisions out further into the public eye — and loosen the political connection between development and local politicians.
Sensible growth makes sense: Florida’s economy needs to diversify. A declining influx of residents means the state can no longer rely on its “one-trick pony” — development — to get it out of this lousy economy. Amendment 4 could re-pivot Florida by protecting communities and fostering more innovative economic growth. The state has lost about 28,000 construction jobs over the past year, and more than 300,000 unsold homes still sit on the market. Yet as soon as Amendment 4 went on the ballot, backers point out that developers were rushing to get state approval for dozens of projects requiring comp-plan changes.
Better development will emerge: If Amendment 4 passes, developers will do what they can to avoid changing comp plans and facing voters. Why go through the added expense and uncertainty of altering the comp plan to add more commercial square feet or housing units? Instead, projects that comply with existing rules will become the norm because they’re easier to approve. Builders will no longer try to push the envelope. And comprehensive planning for a community actually will work.
It’s unworkable: Amendment 4 will possibly force voters to decide hundreds of planning issues a year. Projects will be delayed and financing jeopardized while developers await the outcome of issues to be decided at the next election. Local ballots will become as long as phone books. Faced with complex and technical planning decisions, voters will turn off and just skip over this portion of a ballot. The goal of voters making good, well-considered choices just won’t happen.
Opposed by: Florida Chamber of Commerce • Gov. Charlie Crist • CFO Alex Sink
"The Vote on Everything amendment would cause Florida’s economy to permanently collapse. If you like the recession, you’ll love Amendment 4. According to a study conducted by the Washington Economics Group, Amendment 4 will reduce Florida’s economic output by $34 billion annually. Given Florida’s precarious economic climate, that’s the last thing our state needs." — Florida2010.org
It’s costly: In a fragile economy, Amendment 4 will only add to the price of homes or commercial construction. The more hoops that builders must leap through to get a project approved, the more expensive it will be. Political campaigning for project approval also would become an additional cost — one that is ultimately passed on to buyers. The extra upfront cost also could make it tougher to finance a project and raise further ethical concerns when banks are effectively asked to underwrite the cost of a campaign as part of development costs.
It’s not needed: Don’t voters elect officials to make these kind of decisions? And if local politicians do something voters don’t want, can’t residents respond by casting out these elected leaders at the next election? Amendment 4 instills a micro-manager form of democracy on communities — one that critics say busy voters don’t want to face.
It’ll freeze Florida’s economy: Like it or not, Florida thrives on construction. A measure like Hometown Democracy is just the kind of hurdle that could prove too big to climb. It will further stunt building at a time when the industry is struggling most, leading to more layoffs, a lack of development activity, and lower tax collections for local and state governments. With the state already facing a $2.5 billion budget deficit, the amendment could lead to lower real-estate and sales-tax collections. And that likely means fewer dollars going to schools, universities and business-tax incentives that are needed to foster recovery.