Blocking build-build-builders


Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Mike Thomas

Published September 30, 2009


They're like two characters out of a Carl Hiaasen book, two eco-heroes embroiled in a sometimes nasty, sometimes comical, page-turning brawl with dastardly villains who pave Florida for profit.

Lesley Blackner and Ross Burnaman grew frustrated fighting developers, literally house by house, in local zoning battles.

So they concocted Florida Hometown Democracy, a proposed amendment that asks people this simple question: Before turning the bulldozers loose on Bambi, wouldn't you like to vote on it?

If approved next year, Florida would become the only state in the nation requiring democratically elected urban sprawl.

This has sent the entire development industry and business lobby into fits of befuddled panic. All their lawyers and politicians haven't been able to shut the duo down. All their dirty tricks have failed.

And so these two unpretentious lawyers, labeled as "radicals" and "extremists," are gearing up for a campaign blessed by near-perfect timing.

Florida is on the edge of a depression with plunging home prices, rampant foreclosures and abandoned houses rotting in the heat and dragging down neighborhoods.

It raises an interesting question. Who is more extreme, the people responsible for this conflagration and whose response to it is to build more-more-more or the people who want to give voters the option of reining it in?

"I think the housing bust has exposed the reality of developer control for what it is," says Blackner. "They had everything they wanted for the last five to six years. They crashed the economy. They have no solution other than bring the bubble back. Hometown Democracy is the only genuine reform on the table that can change the politics of growth once and for all."

Is that radical?

Or is this radical? There are 300,000 empty houses in Florida. "For Lease" signs have replaced merchandise in storefront windows. Office vacancies are skyrocketing. The state's population is declining for the first time since World War II. Yet there are requests pending to build more than 600,000 more homes, along with millions more square feet of commercial space. There are plans to conjure up massive new cities from scratch in the middle of nowhere.

This is like treating Type 2 diabetes with Twinkies.

By their very actions, the most ardent foes of Hometown Democracy are making the strongest case for it.

Our development pandemic threatens the economy as much as the environment.

Home values in Orlando have plunged so fast they now rank below the state average.

The reason is that there are 10 homes in your neighborhood for sale and only four buyers. And the developers' response is to build five more, so now there will be 15 homes for sale and four buyers.

What do you think this is going to do to the value of your house? The deflating value you see now is going to linger for years and years, the time frame extended by every new development.

The problem is that we have been addicted to the cheap drug of growth for so long, nobody can think of an alternative.

When 20 people a day are moving into Florida, build 30 homes a day. When 20 people a day are moving out of Florida, build 30 homes a day.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida are complete frauds.


They spin yarns about economic diversity, about improving the quality of life, about investing in schools and universities to upgrade our work force.

Then come crunch time, it is back to build-build-build.

They make this sound perfectly rational, while painting supporters of Hometown Democracy as crazed extremists.

I read letters to the editor from $500-an-hour land-use attorneys, arguing in perfectly oiled and rational prose about the chaos that would ensue if they could not cut their backroom deals.

The mainstream environmental groups have so adapted to this reality that they keep Hometown Democracy at arm's length. They are willing to fight developers but only within the accepted rules of engagement, wrangling their deals to sacrifice this but save that before regulatory boards and legislative committees.

Burnaman regards stalwarts such as Audubon of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida as sellouts, co-opted by corporate-board members and corporate contributions.

"What is an environmental group?" he asks. "I don't know that there are many environmental groups in Florida."

This is a guy who long ago has given up on compromise.

It's hard to blame him. We've had more than 30 years of environmental regulations and growth-management laws.

Look around and see how well that's working for us.