Running scared over Amendment 4

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald
By Carl Hiaasen

Published October 11, 2010 

Major home builders are uncorking a bombastic media blitz to scare Floridians away from voting yes to Amendment 4.

The same people who helped ignite the housing crash and mortgage meltdown are absolutely terrified of giving citizens actual control over growth in their own communities.

The so-called Hometown Democracy Amendment would require local voters to approve any significant changes to a county or city ``comprehensive land-use plan,'' the map by which municipalities evolve.

If the measure passes -- and it needs the support of 60 percent of voters -- no massive housing subdivision or commercial development could be built without the project first appearing on a ballot.

It's not exactly a radical concept, but the opposing special interests will do just about anything to kill it.

They're scared because they know Floridians are fed up with lousy planning and overbuilding, and the high taxes that always result.

They're scared because they know Floridians are sick of watching elected officials cave in again and again to developers, making a farce of land-use regulations.

But mostly they're scared because, if passed, Amendment 4 has the potential to disrupt the influence-peddling and outright corruption that's made it so easy to subvert the will of the public.

As things stand now, development interests can thwart opposition to projects by simply buying off the politicians whose votes are needed to make it happen.

Typically that's achieved by hiring connected lobbyists, who then approach a receptive county commissioner or city council member. In many cases, the lobbyist has raised money for the officeholder's election campaign, so a favor is perceived to be owed.

And a threat implied, too: If you don't line up behind the project, don't expect any donations for your next campaign.

Occasionally, if the elected official is exceptionally greedy and dim-witted, a cash bribe or some other illicit benefit is arranged.

Public hearings are often a formality, a minor road bump. Plenty of earnest folks show up to question the impact of a proposed subdivision or shopping mall upon their neighborhoods and lives, and the politicians pretend to listen.

By that point, though, the deal is already sealed, the necessary majority of votes secured.

This cynical charade has been going on since the beginning of statehood. It's the reason so many Florida cities look like they were planned by chimpanzees on LSD.

It's also the reason we now have an estimated 300,000 homes and condos sitting vacant statewide, while leading the nation in foreclosures as well as mortgage fraud. The term "growth management'' is a joke.

Amendment 4 isn't a perfect solution. Much will depend on how the language is interpreted -- for instance, determining how large a project must be before it goes to a vote.

Many thoughtful people, including some professional planners, fear the amendment would generate an endless spate of elections in fast-growing counties. They're also worried that deep-pocketed developers will be able to sway the outcomes with slick advertising campaigns.

Another issue is the wisdom of holding a countywide or citywide referendum on a building project that might affect only one neighborhood. At the very least, the amendment is bound to spawn lawsuits until the courts clarify its reach.

Despite such concerns, it's hard to imagine a system for managing growth that could possibly be more dishonest, or deaf to the public interest, than what we have now.

Nobody with half a brain believes that development pays for itself. Study after study shows that residents are the ones who pay big-time for sprawl, which is why taxes are so brutal in Florida's most densely populated counties.

So is the cost of living. Clogged highways, overcrowded schools and jails, water shortages -- we pay for all of it.

Opponents claim that Amendment 4 will actually raise taxes, one of many straight-faced lies that will saturate the airwaves between now and election day. This is well-financed desperation.

While the amendment's supporters have raised only about $2.4 million, the opposition had a war chest of $12 million by mid-summer.

The biggest donor is the Florida Association of Realtors -- what a shocker -- followed by some of the biggest home builders on Wall Street.

Here's the killer: Many of the companies bankrolling the ad campaign against Amendment 4 are recipients of a congressional bailout, in the form of humongous tax refunds earlier this year.

According to an industry magazine (Headline: "Builders Cash in on Tax Refunds''), Lennar Homes has already taken $251 million in taxpayer-funded relief.

Yet somehow the firm scrounged up $367,000 to fight the Florida Hometown Democracy movement.

Pulte Homes accepted $800 million in federal bailout refunds while kicking in $567,000 to a political action committee opposed to Amendment 4.

So, when you see all those dire-sounding, fright-filled TV commercials, remember whose paying for them. You are.

These guys are using your money to keep your voice, and your vote, out of the neighborhood planning process. Think about that when you're standing in the voting booth on Nov 2.

Do the thing they dread the most: Read Amendment 4 and decide for yourself.