By Thomas R. Collins
Changes to state growth management laws passed during the latest legislative session have area watchdogs and officials wary of the prospects for development in and around coastal barrier island towns.
The changes, pushed through by Gov. Rick Scott and a Republican-dominated legislature, would mean that it is no longer a state requirement for roads, schools and parks to keep up with development — a concept known as ‘concurrency’ — but would leave it up to local governments to require it.
Another change would make it more difficult for local residents to challenge changes to local comprehensive plans — the blueprint for future development that is designed to keep projects logical and not overly harmful to the environment. Those changes could not be put out to referendum for a citizen vote. Plus, changes to comprehensive plans — now possible at only pre-determined times twice a year — could be done at any municipal meeting, giving residents less time to prepare if they want to oppose them.
The Department of Community Affairs, the state agency that oversees development, would be downsized. The new process would allow the state to comment on the projects with the most profound effects, but would not require such review.
Those supporting the changes say they’re needed to lift up a state economy in which developers are hamstrung by excessive red tape.
Critics respond that, with projects approved but languishing, it is hardly state oversight that is to blame for the state’s economic woes.
Bob Ganger, president of the Florida Coalition for Preservation, said the system that has been in place for 25 years has “changed dramatically” and is concerned about the possible effects.
The group was formed in 2006 to combat a proposal to turn the town of Briny Breezes into a complex of more than 1,500 condos, timeshares and hotel rooms, and has remained the barrier island’s most staunch advocate of sensible growth.
In part due to the coalition’s work, the state’s Department of Community Affairs swooped in to challenge the enormity of the Briny Breezes project, with meetings attended by Secretary Tom Pelham himself.
“Without the Department of Community Affairs to question the amended comprehensive plan, clearly the developer would have had the upper hand,” Ganger said.
With a shrunken DCA, a level of protection may be lost, he said. But added it is too early to declare a doomsday.
Financial conditions will mean that development will probably be self-limiting at least in the near future, he said, and citizens could always challenge developments in the courts.
“They’re simply going to shift disputes in to the courts and in so doing slow the process down even more than it would have been otherwise,” he said.
Joanne Davis, who handles community affairs locally for the community-planning group 1000 Friends of Florida, said changes to the burden-of-proof requirements would greatly limit residents’ ability to challenge a project in the courts — and many people may find it not even worth the fight.
“Now, the burden of proof is on the challenger, not the developer,” she said.
She said that putting more control in the hands of local officials — minus state oversight — makes it much easier for developers to have their way.
“Developers are in the habit of lobbying local governments and offering and promising lots of things that may or may not take place,” she said. “And they’re very good at influencing them.”
Briny Breezes Mayor Roger Bennett pointed out that “DCA will not disappear” but said the possibility of less oversight might make it easier for a potential project to be approved.
“In many respects it may be a little easier,” he said. But he said he is not aware of any major development proposals.
“There’s been no talk that I know of,” Bennett said. “It’s been very quiet.”
Michael Gut, the chairman of the corporate board of the mobile home park, said he also is unaware of any proposals.
Jerry Lower, the planning and zoning board director for the town and the publisher of The Coastal Star, said he expects the town’s plans to remain the same.
“The Town of Briny Breezes is working on a comprehensive plan that allows for modest self-redevelopment and the use of housing that is more storm-worthy than the existing mobile homes,” he said. “We don’t see a change in state politics as a reason to alter those goals.” The Briny Breezes land is not the only parcel that might be seen as juicy development terrain with the changed laws, said the coalition’s executive director Kristine de Haseth.
“There are numerous post-war and multifamily structures on the barrier island that could represent an appealing target for an aggressive developer,” she said in an email.
Ken Schenck, town manager of Ocean Ridge, just north of Briny Breezes, said it remains to be seen how the law will affect development.
“We’ve always got concerns about what they’re going to do,” he said. “We realize something is going to happen there eventually. … In today’s market what they were proposing before probably wouldn’t fly anyway.”
He said the town could always raise concerns with county or state officials — such as traffic concerns with the Department of Transportation.
“How much clout we’d have?” he said. “Probably not much.”
He said it’s also possible that a project in Briny Breezes might even be acceptable.
“It just depends on what they do,” he said.
Ganger said he could not imagine a situation in which a neighboring town would sit idly by while development outside its borders threatens its quality of life, regardless of changes to state growth management laws.
“I really do believe that in our neck of the woods we have well-managed jurisdictions,” he said. “And that it really gets down to your trust in your elected officials to abide by the rules that they’ve already set in prior comprehensive plans “which, in general in our area, are quite reasonable.’’
Davis said local residents cannot afford to take a back seat as development proposals are made.
“There’s never, ever a more important time for them to be in contact with their local government,” she said. “Unless the public engages, they will have no voice. Politicians pay attention to numbers. So show up at the meetings.”