In a time of 'exponential everything,' Florida's old planning laws could help fight climate change
Earl Starnes, Florida's first planning director, helped write a suite of laws that sought to control sprawl in the 1970s that began to stress the state's resources.
In the 1970s, amid a wave of new laws created to control the rampant development paving over the Sunshine State, Florida named Earl Starnes as its first planning director.
Starnes faced a daunting task: convince landowners that to save Florida and its wetlands, springs and natural resources that made it unique, the state needed to impose tougher rules on big development.
It needed to slow the land rush lining their pockets. As he toured the state in a series of public hearings to promote this new vision for planned growth, Starnes encountered a skeptical public that instead viewed the laws as big government.
“That was repeated over and over and over,” Starnes told author and University of Florida journalism professor Cynthia Barnett in a 2000 interview. “They thought we were communists and sometimes I thought we were, too.”
At one heated meeting in an Immokalee school cafeteria, someone turned off the lights soon after the hearing started, he told Barnett.
“And when they came back on, the shotguns and pistols had appeared on almost every table in the room,” Barnett recounted.
At the time, Florida had no requirements to keep sprawling new developments from overwhelming roads, water supplies, schools or other precious resources. No efforts were underway to preserve the state’s pristine springs, cypress forests, wetlands or mangrove-fringed coasts.
The Everglades was still considered a flood control issue, not a looming environmental disaster. And developers like the Mackle brothers were peddling mail-order paradise through the General Development Corporation, carving cities from tens of thousands of acres on floodplains and swampland.
“The amazing thing is that they did bring statewide planning to Florida,” said Barnett, who interviewed Starnes for what would become her first book. “There are all of these figures who kind of become forgotten. And he was an important one not to forget.”
Starnes died in August, just before his 95th birthday. He’d broken his hip in March and been hospitalized at the VA, said his daughter, Janet Starnes, and separated from his wife of 72 years, Dorothy Jean.
As threats from climate change and over-development once again remind Florida of its precarious place, those who loved and worked with Starnes say his vision for urban planning, and the rules he tried to put in place, are worth remembering.
“I look at all the state parks and all the critical areas and all the natural areas that do exist, and will continue to exist, and a lot of that happened because of that growth management concept,” said his daughter, Janet Starnes. “I think that's really his legacy: building a foundation upon which the state can and will survive even when we have these periods where we turn away from environmental protection and we turn away from the consideration of the bigger picture.”
The laws have largely been whittled away over the decades since. In 2011, state lawmakers and Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor at the time, rewrote the 1985 Growth Management Act that grew out of the early laws. They also disbanded the Department of Community Affairs created to oversee growth. They replaced it with the Department of Economic Opportunity.
“The whole idea that somehow the well-being of the Florida lifestyle is subsumed under economic development just shows a complete switch and how the current government views the way of life in Florida,” said Victoria Tschinkel, the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Regulation from 1981 to 1987.
In a time of “exponential everything,” it’s time Florida lives up to the kind of smart growth Starnes and his colleagues at the time envisioned, she said.
“How many years did we lose on protecting coastal development because climate change somehow became a political buzzword, even though it was well-established that the oceans were rising?” she said. “Even if you didn't agree with what was causing it, you should have been ready to plan for that, and a whole bunch of buildings probably never should have been built.”
Outwardly Starnes, a practicing architect when he was lured to Tallahassee, came off as a spotlight-averse academic.
“He wasn't even terribly comfortable speaking in public,” Barnett said.
The son of a citrus farmer
Starnes was born and raised in Winter Haven and grew up on his father’s citrus farm, where he built his first boat at 13 and raised chickens he sold to the local Piggly Wiggly manager. The manager, George Jenkins, went on to found Publix.
Working with his hands, he later said, led him to the University of Florida’s architecture school. After graduation, he moved to South Florida to work first with Courtney Stewart, an early draftsman for Addison Mizner and the first Florida-trained architect to open an office in Fort Lauderdale.
When he heard about an opening with a rising young modernist, Alfred Browning Parker, he moved his family to Miami. He later worked for Rufus Nims, another modernist who was helping Howard Johnson build his motel empire.
“Rufus had designed the replica for Howard Johnson restaurants,” Starnes told Barnett. The orange roof, he said, was Johnson’s idea. “As the chain grew, that became the stock plans that went all over the country.”
Starnes helped design what would become the model for the motel room — picture window, desk chair, beds, bathroom.
“That became a pattern for the industry and it still is the same pattern,” he told Barnett. Johnson “was absolutely convinced that the American public would buy predictability.”
It was a philosophy that influence Starnes when he moved into urban planning and politics. In 1964, he won a seat on the Miami-Dade County commission after he grew frustrated with the haphazard way the county governed growth and protected its natural treasures, including Biscayne Bay — where he took his family fishing nearly every weekend.
“He truly believed if you're not comfortable with something, then it's your responsibility to try to do something about that,” said Janet Starnes, who retired two years ago from the South Florida Water Management District after overseeing Everglades restoration projects.
At the time, development in South Florida was a matter of lining up votes, said Audubon Florida’s Charles Lee, who was 16 and a new member of the Mangrove Chapter of the Izaak Walton League when he met Starnes.
“It was all political,” said Lee. “If a developer wanted to build anything, no matter how environmentally destructive, all they needed to do was to walk into a county commission meeting on any given meeting day and get something approved.”
Politician, planner and environmental champion
Starnes began to put the environment first. He convinced Gov. Claude Pepper to buy Cape Florida and create Bill Baggs State Park. He helped Joe Browder defeat an Everglades jetport, which would have carved six runways and a 1000-ft. wide highway through the Everglades. He also worked with a small group of activists to create Biscayne National Monument, the precursor to the national park, and block plans to build a causeway connecting the bay’s tiny keys.
When Reubin Askew was elected governor, he lured Starnes to Tallahassee to serve as the director of the Department of Transportation and ultimately become part of a team of ‘young scouts’ recruited to write the suite of new planning laws.
The laws were designed to control the mega new resort communities, retirement villages and poorly planned suburbs stressing out the state. Under the laws, local county governments would need to devise comprehensive growth plans to ensure water supplies, roads, schools and other services weren’t over-burdened.
They would need to designate areas for growth to protect wetlands and other sensitive lands. To escape political pressure from developers, the "scouts" gave ultimate veto power to the new Department of Community Affairs to ensure the plans endured.
“There were some very heated times back then because people didn't really accept the idea of the regulation of growth that is now accepted in Florida as a real thing,” said Tschinkel. “It's so obvious that you need to plan. I mean, everybody plans. So I think it was just absurd to think that planning was some kind of a mysterious thing.”
Starnes has been called one of the founding fathers of Florida growth planning, a field he helped broaden when he left politics in 1973 to take over UF’s newly created department of urban planning. For nearly 20 years, he worked to wrestle back control of the post-war land boom.
Richard Grosso was just starting his career as a public interest attorney for 1000 Friends of Florida when he met Starnes, who helped co-found the nonprofit with three former governors. Later, when Grosso and 1000 Friends sued to stop a medical research center from being built on the edge of the Everglades and needed an expert witness to go against a sitting governor, he turned to Starnes to be his expert witness.
“You had advocates for environmental protection running away from that, because it was Jeb Bush's pet project,” said Grosso. “So it took guts for people to stand up to that one, and Earl Starnes was one of those people with guts.”
Even in retirement, after he moved to Cedar Key, Starnes continued to serve on the local planning and historic boards, said Heath Davis, mayor of the tiny Panhandle fishing village. Often, applicants appearing before the boards had no idea who they faced across the dais.
“You’d be sitting there in a meeting and you’d have some hot, hotshot planner that really thought they knew what they were doing,” Davis said.
Starnes “would let them get pretty far out there on that limb before he’d saw it off.”
When she thinks about his legacy, Janet Starnes said it’s the land he helped save that means the most to her. She remembers growing up in South Miami, and spending nearly every weekend fishing in Biscayne Bay or camping on Elliott Key.
“It was just an innate kind of thing that we learned along the way,” she said, “that great appreciation for what Florida was and is and could be, if we would just do things carefully.”
Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.