Toothless growth law
June 4, 2009
Now that Gov. Charlie Crist has signed into law a major weakening of growth rules, Hillsborough and other urban counties appear to have lost the power to force developers to help pay for new or improved roads.
One of our objections to the law is based on the uncertainty of what its full consequences will be. On something this important, the starting point should be broad agreement of what the bill would do.
One question mark in the law is the requirement that the state consider a vague "mobility fee." It's hard to see how any new charges could raise significant cash without also countering the main purpose of the change, which is to lower the cost of development.
Lower costs are why developers are happy about the changes. But Hillsborough commissioners were right to unanimously ask Crist to veto the bill. Their guess is that the costs of growth will be shifted back to taxpayers.
The price will be paid either in higher taxes or degraded services.
That's also why Crist signed the bill quietly and has had little to say about it. It doesn't square with his broader tax-cutting agenda.
He points out that the changes are not all bad, and he's right, but that raises another issue. Lawmakers packed so much into this bill that some of them probably didn't understand what they were voting for.
One of the bill's useful provisions will allow development agreements to stay valid for two years to give investors time to weather the economic storm. These are projects that have gone through all necessary approvals and public review. Starting over would be a waste of time and money for everyone involved.
But this worthy change could have stood on its own. It has nothing to do with how to pay the costs of growth.
Following the bill was extremely difficult, as it was modified and amendments were added and subtracted. The House considered bills that would have been even more damaging than the Senate's version, which ultimately passed, albeit with some damaging House revisions. House Speaker Ray Cretul and designated successor Dean Cannon have shown themselves to be firmly in the camp of special interests.
The Legislature agreed to a fundamental shift in how growth is managed without informing the local elected officials and planning experts who deal daily with these issues. The fast-growing urban counties most affected by the changes have raised the loudest objections, once they understood what was happening.
It doesn't make sense for state lawmakers from counties largely unaffected to dictate the subsidizing of growth in other places.
The key issue left unanswered is who will pay for the extra highway lanes a big, new project needs. The law doesn't say.
Any economic stimulus provided will have to come from the very taxpayers who are supposed to benefit from the economic growth.
Taxpayers are right to wonder how they will benefit. At more than 1 million people, Hillsborough already is larger than seven states and 42 countries.
It has a huge backlog of needs and an oversupply of housing. And now Crist blissfully signs a bill that likely will allow developers to build more sprawling projects and shift more costs to citizens. Perhaps the governor can explain how this will help Florida's taxpayers or its ailing economy.
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