Planning chief says “speculative” development requests filed

The head of Florida’s land-planning agency said today the state is being kept busy with speculative development proposals because of concerns about a proposed ballot initiative to require voter approval of local land-use plan changes.

During a two-hour question-and-answer session broadcast over the Web, Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham also fielded concerns about SB 360, a growth management bill that would lift restrictions on development in areas with road congestion.

Gov. Charlie Crist has until June 2 to sign the bill, which some environmental groups and the Florida Association of Counties are calling for the governor to veto. Supporters say the bill will encourage development in designated “dense urban areas.”

Pelham was peppered with questions about how the bill would affect local planning and he said the department is working to get answers.

“The department is not in a position today to answer every issue that may arise under SB 360 if it becomes law,” Pelham told listeners. “We have hardly had time to do that. Like any substantial piece of legislation there will be isues of interpretation.”

He opened the session by stating that the department is “very busy” considering land-use change requests despite the economic downturn. He said the requests for new developments from 10,000 to 100,000 new homes each seem to be in anticipation of the proposed Florida Hometown Democracy amendment to the state constitution.

If enough signatures are collected to put Hometown Democracy on the ballot in 2010, it would require voter approval of comprehensive land-use plan amendments. The proposal, which supporters say would rein in haphazard development approval by local governments, faces opposition from industry groups and some local officials.

“I think we need to do a much better job of basing our planning on reasonably projected future (population) needs (rather) than a purely speculative proposal,” Pelham said.

This is Pelham’s second stint as head of DCA, having served under Gov. Bob Martinez from 1987 to 1991 during which time the state’s Growth Management Act was first being implemented. He said legislators at that time saw the need for growth controls but now many of them see a need for more growth to manage.

“Twenty years ago we had the challenge to implement new legislation,” Pelham said. “Now we have the challenge of salvaging what’s good about that legislation (while) also adapting to the times we are in and seeking new solutions to new problems. Things are very different. The problems are very different.”

And asked what is the most important thing that can be done for planning in Florida, Pelham replied that local governments should “take ownership” of their comprehensive plans rather than sending development requests to DCA so that it can play the “bad cop” role in denying them.

“Far too often it appears local plans or local planning are being driven by individual landowners’ development applications for plan amendments that are acted upon in a vacuum without any comprehensive evaluation as to how it affects the entire plan,” he said. “Local government just becomes a conduit for transferring the applications on up to the department.”