The mother of all reset buttons

Amsterdam - now THERE's a sense of place

Like a heroin addict going cold turkey, Florida appears poised to get off the growth drug this coming fall. If massive overbuilding, unemployment, depopulation, and a tourist-chasing oil slick weren’t enough, Florida’s voters are in the mood to vote yes on a referendum called Amendment 4 , making every future change to the state’s comprehensive plan subject to voter approval, rather than be reviewed through a representative public process.  

This referendum capitalizes on short-term voter outrage over everything, but in the long term Florida will likely languish in the twilight of missed opportunities as businesses relocate elsewhere to avoid risky, lengthy public campaigns to build their presence in this state.

From 1845 to 2009 Florida grew, bringing it up to the fourth most populous state in the nation.  Florida’s immense desirability meant that land developers have become legitimate partners in Florida politics, and dictated much of the growth management legislation in the modern era.  A byproduct of this process, however, has been increasing resentment among those who came for affordability and a low-density lifestyle, as cow pastures and orange groves got mowed down for subdivisions and malls. 

Traffic and congestion, which many immigrants thought they would magically leave behind up north, came with them.  Since before the 1980s, the popular press published article after article about citizens who came for the good life, only to see nature replaced by concrete.  Many who came seemed genuinely puzzled about this transformation, as if human activity would have no noticeable impact.  But it did, and got noticed.

Laissez-faire politicians kept the debate from becoming a serious topic, for the land seemed limitless, and the state’s leadership preferred not to dignify this seeming selfishness with a response.  For those who want to lock the door after they’ve arrived, the response was silence.  This time around, emotions may have acquired a larger momentum in the form of this proposal.  Those supporting this amendment, such as writer Dori Sutter of the Orlando Sentinel, claim that Florida is overbuilt and has the ability “to create jobs and revenue and to accommodate population growth of more than 80million people.”  

Indeed, in the short term Florida could use this time to clean up its act.  Voters might be more likely to approve housekeeping moves to repurpose abandoned properties and improve the aesthetics of the built environment.  This kind of activity, however, depends upon businesses moving in, and most business owners handle enough risk without adding a political campaign to their plates.  If Florida resembled, say, Europe in its sense of place, then Amendment 4 would be a stroke of genius, for the state could quit while it is ahead.

As it is, Amendment 4 would be the mother of all reset buttons, and voters who push this button in November would freeze the state’s built environment at its worst, not its best.  This pause would bifurcate the state’s economic pathway away from the previous course of growth for growth’s sake, and set the stage to diversify the economy and allow Floridians to discover their own destiny through direct democracy.  As such, it represents a grand experiment in process, replicating New England-style town hall debates over the nature and the future of the community.

In the long term, however, this new pathway is far from guaranteed to make for a better process.  For one thing, rational facts and figures hold little stock compared to emotional appeals in an election, and every change to the built environment will face as many detractors as it will supporters.  Decision-making will likely result in as many bad calls as the process does now.

For another thing, property development is a complex, high-stakes game involving many public and private players.  Emotional appeals to voters will tend to reduce this process to matters of style and aesthetic appeal, glossing over technical issues.  And, when these matters tend to be put to the broadest of votes, safe pathways will likely win over innovative pathways and inventive ideas, further miring the state in the past.  This is why property development has historically been left to the government to handle, with representative democracy in the form of public development commissions, and limited participation by way of public hearings.

Those who want to put every 7-11 and office building to the vote recognize the changes that will be made to Florida, and it appears to be more of a referendum on the state’s growth management process.  This season of voter outrage seems to be an opportune time to punish Florida’s favorite villain, the evil developer, as well.  In a broad sense, Florida seems to have hit an impasse where the process has yielded an unfavorable product.  While citizen input has largely gotten the state where it is today, the results are widely viewed as unsatisfactory.

Currently, no compelling argument has been put forth against this proposal.  Homebuilders and developers protest that the process is fine as it stands, but sentiments run differently.  Citizen boards, administrative reviews, and public hearings are made up of Floridians who approve a Comprehensive Plan every five years, and then review changes to the Comprehensive Plan when landowners request these changes to suit their needs.  Sophisticated and complex, this process already involves some environmental protection, detailed technical work, and deep pockets to fund. 

Yet those put in charge of growth management, once in place, find it hard to say no when the state’s property tax coffers, in addition to sales taxes, fund much of the public realm.  Since growth funds much of Florida governments’ activities, growth management acts as a financial conduit, one hardly likely to be restricted by those in charge of it.  Saying “no” is just not part of the process.

Rather than reforming the process, Amendment 4 throws it out altogether in favor of a grand solution.  Floridians are in the mood for grand solutions:  witness last October’s vote in Miami for a form-based zoning code that replaces the zoning process with a product – a Master Plan of sorts for the city.  If the process represents a public conversation about how a city or a region should grow, disgust with the conversation has risen to new levels.  Miami 21 appears to be stopping the conversation, and limiting future generations’ ability to influence the pathways on which a city may economically develop.

Amendment 4 unfortunately represents the opposite:  giving up on the conversation entirely.  Public debate will be characterized by posturing and politicizing, hardly conducive to rational discussion of complex, technical issues.  Where growth has already been well-managed, this might be a good thing, as these regions will organically fine-tune their infrastructure.  Where growth has been poorly managed, however, lack of services, traffic congestion, and patchwork development patterns will punish property owners and governments alike with declining property values and reduced quality of life. 

The long-term consequences will inexorably reshape Florida’s future, and income from activities other than real estate development will have to be considered for the very first time in Florida’s history.  Gaming – already looming large in Florida’s future – is one possibility.  A state income tax is a distant possibility, although a state with a large, low-wage service population will likely be unsatisfied with this kind of shot in the arm.  If Amendment 4 sticks, and is not overturned, it will fundamentally change the way Florida operates as a state.

Thomas Jefferson said, “the government you elect is the government you deserve,” and Florida’s government managed growth in a way that Floridians deserve.  Today, with profound disgust at the result, voters appear poised to start over, this time without the government’s help.  If growth is no longer Florida’s favorite drug, then with Amendment 4 the state will suffer through cold turkey as businesses relocate elsewhere.  A diverse, robust economy may or may not result in this dramatic move, and if it does, then Florida will truly get the state that it deserves and emerge stronger from the depths to which it has sunk.  If, however, this move cripples the state’s recovery, then politicians will have some hard work to reestablish trust among voters and adapt the state’s revenue system and growth management system to a new, no-growth public mentality.

This article originally appeared in The New Geography.