Lawyer Braces For Tough Fight Over Her Amendment 4 Proposition

Initiator of Amendment 4 says development out of control.

Lesley Blackner may be the most cheered and feared woman in Florida.

Article Courtesy of Sarasota Herald-Tribune

By Dale White

Published October 4, 2010 

The 49-year-old work-at-home mother of two boys - a lawyer with a passion for what she considers underdog causes - is the driving force behind proposed state constitutional Amendment 4, among the most divisive issues to come before Floridians in years.

If approved by 60 percent of the electorate Nov. 2, Amendment 4 will give voters - not elected councils and commissions - the final say on developments that require changes to local growth plans.

Condo high-rises, shopping centers, subdivisions - anything not allowed in those plans - would be put to voters for a yes-or-no decision.

For example, Florida Biomass Energy intends to build a power plant near Port Manatee that burns wood chips and non-edible crops. It is expected to provide 150 construction jobs, have 25 employees and pay $2 million in annual state and county taxes.

Power plants, however, are unpopular with residents who do not want industry near their homes.

The Manatee County Commission changed its growth plan to allow Florida Biomass Energy. It did so over the objections of environmentalists, who worry that the power plant may compel local produce farmers to grow trees instead, and a landowner whose nearby property was designated for a potential subdivision.

Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now, and Lesley Blackner, co-founder of Florida Hometown Democracy, explain Amendment 4 to CGNs members

Amendment 4 is precedent-setting, not just for Florida, but nationally: No other state has such a measure.

Blackner helped initiate it by forming the group Hometown Democracy, which spent years collecting the more than 600,000 petition signatures to get it on the ballot. She is passionate about seeing it succeed.

"We have government of the developer, by the developer and for the developer," Blackner said.

She added that "people in the community have rights, too - not just people in the development community."

Amendment 4 has the support of environmental groups, civic associations and others who share the view that growth management in Florida is a misnomer.

Dan Lobeck, president of the Sarasota County group Control Growth Now, is among those who think voters should decide if, how and where their communities can accommodate more development.

"We can trust the people," Lobeck said. "We can trust us."

Yet Blackner's cause has gained as many enemies as it has fans, if not more.

'A forced feeding'

Business interests, especially, say Blackner and her supporters are misguided. They attack Amendment 4 as an impractical measure that will prolong the recession and overwhelm local electorates with minutiae, putting even minor decisions to costly votes.

Municipalities and counties also have been lining up to denounce it.

As of mid-September, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy (including its predecessor, Floridians for Smarter Growth) had raised about $11 million to defeat Amendment 4. It is bankrolled by builders and other business interests, such as the Florida Association of Realtors and Florida Chamber of Commerce.

By contrast, Hometown Democracy collected nearly $2.3 million in monetary and in-kind donations, nearly $800,000 of which came from Blackner.

Opponents predict that, if passed, Amendment 4 will worsen the economy and confuse voters with endless referendums. And, they say, Florida's economy cannot tolerate any signal that may discourage potential employers from wanting to open shop here.

Ryan Houck, executive director of the Citizens group, describes Amendment 4 in seven words: "Fix the problem by making it worse."

"The political climate will become so poisonous most businesses would prefer to steer clear of Florida," Houck said.

He predicts they will get the message: "Come to Florida. We won't break ground for years."

Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton describes Amendment 4 as "draconian" and "a forced feeding of democracy."

Thaxton thinks its opposition may have an uphill battle swaying public opinion because of semantics.

"All the quick and easy sound bites are on the other side," Thaxton said, noting that "Hometown Democracy" sounds as if it "evokes some Americana spirit."

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, gets even more pointed. "This is not democracy. This is socialism."

Such comments inflame Amendment 4 supporters.

"They call us the 'vote on everything' campaign," Blackner said. "I call them the 'say anything' campaign."

Spreading suburbia

Born in Japan, Blackner is the daughter of a Navy pilot who was stationed in several locations before moving his family to five acres in the Mandarin area of Jacksonville.

Senator Mike Bennett

The University of Florida law school graduate joined the Florida Bar in May 1987, specializing in environmental and public interest law.

She spent several years as an appellate court clerk.

In 1996, Blackner and her husband, Richard Stone, a law professor at Florida State University, moved into a 1920s-era home in Palm Beach a block from the ocean.

She started offering her legal services for free on environmental cases. "I was inundated in the late 1990s with cries for help," Blackner said.

Blackner said she became horrified by what was happening to the Florida she remembered from her childhood. Mandarin, for example, used to be a rural area far from Jacksonville's city life. Where Blackner grew up is now typical suburbia, from which the commute into the city and its jobs takes longer as more cars are added to its thoroughfares. She saw the same patterns in Palm Beach County.

At county commission meetings there, Blackner says she was stunned by how easily land use changes were approved by politicians who accepted campaign donations from developers.

To her, elected officials were failing to perform their main responsibility: "protect the public interest."

Instead, they "promote economic development," which, to Blackner, is "code word for letting developers build wherever they want."

What has happened in Blackner's back yard in recent years has only reinforced her contention that "our current system doesn't work for the people." Since 2006, three Palm Beach County commissioners and two West Palm Beach city commissioners have gone to prison on federal corruption charges.

Several years ago, Blackner met Tallahassee attorney Ross Burnaman, a former lawyer for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, at a seminar.

Together, they came up with the idea of Amendment 4.

Blackner is braced for media campaigns that she says her organization does not have the money to counter. "It's going to be very nasty," she predicted. But having invested seven years in her cause and with just weeks to go, Blackner - unsurprisingly - has no plans to give up.