A proposed amendment to Florida’s constitution, which would give Sunshine State voters the power to veto any changes to municipalities’ comprehensive plans for land use, might have a better chance of being approved next year than at any time during this decade, during which aggressive development has driven and now decimated Florida's economy.

Organizations representing builders and businesses have spent at least $4 million so far opposing Amendment 4, asserting that it would politicize land-use decision making, hamper job creation, and raise taxes. Supporters, on the other hand, say land-use referendums are necessary because politicians have essentially relinquished their regulatory responsibilities to developers, who they argue have run roughshod over the state.

“The history of Florida has been that you can build anything anywhere. Our goal is to change the politics of growth,” says Leslie Blackner, the 48-year-old cofounder of Florida Hometown Democracy, which has spent $1.8 million to gather more than 1 million voter signatures to get Amendment 4 on the ballot next November. (Court rejections of signatures had kept this amendment off the ballot twice before.)

While it may be too early to gauge voter sentiment, there’s some evidence that winds might be shifting in this amendment’s direction. The News Leader, Florida’s oldest newspaper, reported Monday on a workshop in Fernandina Beach where local residents said they were generally in favor of the law change. The board of directors of 1000 Friends of Florida—a nonprofit membership organization that describes itself as the state’s “growth management watchdog”—has asked its president Charles Pattison to “re-examine” the group’s current opposition to Amendment 4. While Pattison calls the amendment “a simplistic reaction to a complicated problem,” he concedes that there is “a growing frustration [among voters] with the governing process.”

David Hart, vice president of legislative and governmental affairs for the Florida HBA, says defeating this measure “is going to be a tough fight, so we have to be prepared and ready to inform the public about how this amendment would hurt job creation.” The HBA is coordinating its efforts with Floridians for Smart Growth, an Orlando-based coalition that business and community groups formed specifically to defeat Amendment 4, which it characterizes as “a grave threat to Florida’s future.” Its Website asserts that this amendment would require voters to weigh in on as many as 300 land-use changes per year. And Ryan Houck, this group’s executive director, is taking this threat seriously. “If the election were held today, the amendment would win,” he tells BUILDER.

Chipping Away

Florida's dismal housing market—where more than 400,000 dwellings are unoccupied and whose statewide foreclosure rate ranked second nationwide in November according to RealtyTrac—is certainly raising questions in voters’ minds about how the state has managed its growth, as well as the logic of approving new residential development in the near future.

The state has tried to corral its growth before.

In 1985, an act passed by Florida’s Legislature created the Department of Community Affairs, fortified the state’s Department of Transportation, and required developers to install infrastructure, schools, roads, and parks to support any new residential or commercial growth they proposed. However, over the years there has been “a general loosening” of land-use regulations, observes Pattison, as the state’s population ballooned from 12.9 million in 1990 to more than 18 million today, according to Census Bureau data. Despite a recent slowdown in that growth, Florida’s population is still expected to reach nearly 21 million in 2025 and hit at least 24 million by 2050.

In June, Gov. Charlie Crist (who is planning to run for U.S. Senate when his term expires) signed into law Senate 360, which removes the infrastructure burden for new growth from developers and builders. (This bill is currently tied up in a lawsuit, and Pattison notes that the state’s planning agency has said that its execution still requires municipal approval.)

Hometown Democracy's Blackner sees Senate 360’s passage into law as one more example “of how developers always get their way here,” and why Amendment 4 is needed to balance the scales for voters. Both she and Pattison also suggest that slowing development might not be such a bad idea when there’s more than enough residential and commercial projects approved and in the pipeline to handle Florida’s population growth for decades to come. The organization 1000 Friends of Florida estimates 480 million square feet of commercial space, more than 400,000 acres of land, and 630,000 new dwellings have been okayed, on top of the roughly 11 months’ supply of existing residential inventory on the market.

Strange Bedfellows

Builders, of course, see this issue differently, and view Amendment 4 as an anti-growth bludgeon. Hart asserts that Floridians considering the amendment shouldn’t ignore that, over the next generation, the state’s population is projected to expand by at least 1% per year. “I reject those who say that we shouldn’t be looking to the future because we have enough [development] in place now.”

Hart also claims that Senate 360—which the Florida HBA supported—has been mischaracterized by its opponents as a gift to developers. “The growth management act and transportation concurrency [which, in essence, required new building to be near roads or transportation corridors] had proven to be a broken model because it limited what you could build in urban areas, and growth was pushed out to the suburbs and fringes,” he explains. Hart points out that Senate 360 affects only 8 of 67 counties and fewer than half of Florida’s municipalities.

Blackner doesn’t run away from the NIMBY label, and freely states that the point of this amendment is to make changing comprehensive plans harder. She insists, though, that she is not against growth, per se. “Hopefully, Amendment 4 will make growth smarter,” she says. She dismisses critics’ claims that the amendment would, in Houck’s words, “make every planning decision a political decision.” She also shrugs when some amendment opponents have questioned  the wisdom of putting land-use decisions before an electorate that may not have either the time or the expertise to sift through and comprehend proposed changes to a comprehensive growth plan. “Well, maybe for the first time developers and the commissioners will have to put these changes into plainer language,” she says.

Blackner bristles, however, when opponents attempt to undermine her organization by linking it with benefactors that favor anti-immigration reforms. “It’s a red herring and has nothing to do with Amendment 4,” she states. “And I don’t have to agree with every person or group that give us money.” Among Hometown Democracy’s more controversial supporters is the anti-immigrationist Floridians for a Sustainable Population, whose founder, Joyce Tarnow, once operated an abortion clinic. In 2004, Tarnow was quoted in the Broward Palm Beach News as saying “fertility is an environmental issue. That’s why I try to get as many people sterilized as are in my way.”

A Third Way?

Houck is willing to concede that Florida’s system for regulating land use “has some flaws.” But he also thinks that Amendment 4 would make things worse because it would lead to piecemeal planning, and would add to the cost of development because land-use decisions would inevitably become political campaigns “that encourage special interests on both sides to put out forth the most extreme versions of what they want.”

He notes that at least one town has already tried a version of Amendment 4, with decidedly mixed results. Three years ago, St. Pete Beach, a tourist town with 10,000 residents, passed a law that required a referendum on all changes to its comprehensive plan. Houck claims that law “hamstrung” the redevelopment of many of the town’s older buildings. In the summer of 2008, business groups submitted four plan changes that voters approved. But within days of that mandate, supporters of the amendment filed lawsuits to invalidate the decision. Since then, the town has been mired in legal battles which have forced it to raise taxes. “This shows that Amendment 4 proponents aren’t interested in giving people more control. They are only interested in stopping growth, plain and simple,” says Houck.

A more viable alterative to costly and time-consuming referendums, he suggests, might be what he calls “visioning” efforts that bring all affected and interested parties to the table. He points specifically to the “How Shall We Grow” program conducted this year by MyRegion.org, a coalition of the seven counties around Orlando (which includes 86 municipalities). This program engaged 20,000 residents in the planning of a regional development and transportation framework, and included a series of training sessions over several months with representatives from business, environmental, and government groups and agencies.

Much could happen between now and November, and opponents of Amendment 4 remain convinced they can persuade enough voters to defeat this measure. But 1000 Friends of Florida's Pattison wonders if the recent rush by developers to get big projects approved before the amendment goes up for a vote might backfire and further alienate voters who aren’t thrilled with the perceived cozy relationship between their elected officials and the development community. “We’re just waiting for the legislature to do something stupid to add fuel to the fire,” Pattison says.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.