In 2011, Florida made sweeping changes to the laws regulating new development. Now legislators are re-examining how the state is juggling the needs of a growing population. At the time, lawmakers characterized state oversight of development as bad for business, and said rolling back the regulations would boost job creation. Cutting growth management was also a campaign push for then candidate Rick Scott.
The 2011 growth management law shuttered the state agency in charge of scrutinizing new development, the Department of Community Affairs, and put the task in the hands of local governments. Measures to curb urban sprawl are gone, as are some requirements that new infrastructure, like schools and parks, go along with new development. And under the current system, the state isn’t checking to see if local government plans obey the law. Thomas Hawkins with the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida says the lack of oversight is endangering natural resources.
“Now the Department of Economic Opportunity just looks at whether it impacts state resources. And that’s not working as well as it ought to. Because there’s no accountability, there’s no oversight over whether local governments are following the law,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins pointed to an example in Walton County, where local officials tried to remove protections for the area's dune lakes. That's a rare coastal ecosystem of international significance: they're only found in a few places in the world, including Madagascar, Australia, and the Florida Panhandle. The Walton County plan didn't meet statutory requirements for data and analysis, and would've jeopardized the unique dune lake system. But because of changes in state law, the Department of Economic Opportunity couldn't block the plan. 1000 Friends of Florida eventually challenged the plan in court and was successful. But Thomas Hawkins believes lawmakers should draft policy that encourages local governments to comply with the law.
“Local governments should be in charge of their destiny. But in order to increase accountability, there does need to be an opportunity, when they do something that’s inconsistent with the community planning act, folks can challenge,” Hawkins said.
In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will consider whether local control of development is undercutting statewide needs, like drinking water and the interstate system. Hawkins is also encouraging them to make it easier for community groups to challenge development plans.