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Florida Voters Enter Battle on Growth

Homes
Gordon Banks
Homes

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — Lesley Blackner drove through a maze of condominium towers, rarely seeing any curtains in the windows, or residents, and tried to contain her anger.

“They’ve crammed as much as they can in here,” she said this month, noting that just a few years ago cows grazed on the land west of I-95. “The people around here didn’t want it — they objected. But the City Commission did it anyway.”

Even now, with about 300,000 residential units sitting empty around the state, the push to build continues. Since 2007, local governments have approved zoning and other land use changes that would add 550,000 residential units and 1.4 billion square feet of commercial space, state figures show.

So for Ms. Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer with a Mercedes full of paperwork, the real estate crisis is not just the fault of Wall Street, Washington or misguided borrowers; it is also the back-scratching bond between elected officials and builders — a common source of frustration in weak real estate markets around the country wherever developers are still fighting to add more housing.

In Florida, at least, Ms. Blackner hopes to put an end to the chronic oversupply with a ballot initiative she has labeled “Hometown Democracy.”

Amendment 4, as it is officially called, would give Floridians a vote on changes to state-mandated plans for growth in every county and municipality. Much of the potential impact of the measure is up for debate, with important details most likely to be decided by the courts.

But if it is added to the state’s Constitution — which would require 60 percent approval on Election Day — critics and supporters envision revolutionary change.

Leaders of the Yes on 4 campaign, including Ms. Blackner, say it would end a culture of freewheeling development that began when Hamilton Disston started dredging Florida swamps in the 1880s. Critics, led by chambers of commerce, say the measure would lead to lost jobs, chaos and expensive court battles.

Either way, the referendum is bringing into sharp relief the conflict surrounding real estate nationwide: while new homes, growth and the American dream are forever intertwined, many people are questioning why development often overwhelms other public priorities, even after it led to an economic crisis.

“Most planning advocates would love to have the structure we have in Florida, but most Floridians know that the structure doesn’t work,” said Michael Allan Wolf, a University of Florida law professor. “Amendment 4 suggests that, on the ground, this system is really broken.”

This is not an even fight. Ms. Blackner’s group has raised $2.4 million (with $800,000 from her own pocket), but most of it was spent on getting on the ballot.

The No on 4 campaign has raised nearly $12 million through a series of political action committees — enough for a glossy Web site, consultants and plenty of airtime. The Florida Association of Realtors is its largest single contributor, giving more than $2.3 million.

The nation’s biggest homebuilders, after receiving a multibillion-dollar bailout from Congress this year, have also been quite generous. Altogether, Lennar Homes, KB Home and Pulte Homes gave more than $1 million to No on 4’s main political action committee, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy.

"They could build until hell freezes over. This isn’t about building. It’s about control." -Palm Beach, Fla. Lawyer, Lesley Blackner

Ryan Houck, a spokesman for the group, said that developers were not the only opponents of the amendment, which he described as “overreaching and extreme.” The contributors’ list also includes community farm bureaus, which worry that it would make it harder to sell and rezone agricultural land for other uses.

Some county planners are also concerned about potential costs to government. “The litigation that ensues, no matter what happens, is really the potential fly in the ointment,” said Mark Satterlee, planning and development director for St. Lucie County.

Amendment 4 leaves open to interpretation whether every proposed change to a community’s development plan would need to appear on future ballots. In a sign of possible litigation to come, lawyers favoring the measure say that it would cover only major land use changes and that related proposals could be combined for votes by commissions.

Opponents say that under Amendment 4, each tweak of a development plan — which every county and municipality must have in place under a state law passed in the mid-1980s, and which requires updating every seven years — would have to appear on the ballot. Voters, they say, would have hundreds of items to digest each year.

That is not the typical situation. Annual figures from a half-dozen Florida counties and several fast-growing cities suggest that most voters in most years would decide on no more than 20 changes, usually fewer. (The No on 4 Web site says that the small town of Carrabelle would have had 617 proposed changes on its 2006 ballot under such a law, but records and interviews show only a handful of changes proposed that year.)

A more serious issue may be whether the ballot items, which are limited to 75 words or less, would lead to advertising campaigns, followed by misunderstandings and lawsuits. Larger development changes cover complicated issues including water supply and transportation, often with hundreds of pages of material. “Sometimes we take a hand truck to carry boxes down to the commissioners,” said Rick Burris, principal planner for Lee County.

However, Mr. Burris added, plan change approvals were not required for building. While developers claim that Amendment 4 would make construction impossible, current community plans around the state actually include robust expansion.

A rural area like Jackson County has room for 996 years of residential growth at current rates, according to a 2009 state analysis. Charlotte County has 162 years of growth in its plan, while St. Lucie County has the capacity to house its growing population for the next 212 years.

Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report
Your Money Your Vote - A CNBC Special Report

And that is what gets Ms. Blackner really fuming. “They could build until hell freezes over,” she said during a daylong tour of failed developments. “This isn’t about building. It’s about control.”

She drove past a row of empty condos on Route 1 called the Preserve, then past commercial and residential space, all vacant concrete floors and for-rent signs; then more examples of what she called the political class’s addiction to the next deal — apartment towers with few occupants, several stories higher than the plans’ original limits.

Finally she arrived at Tesoro, a golf community in the City of Port St. Lucie with a $48 million San Simeon-like clubhouse. The city’s mayor resigned and was arrested last Wednesday, on charges of pocketing campaign contributions, including money from developers. Tesoro — former scrub brush — is now an eerie ghost town of minicastles with fewer than 100 residents.

“This is bubble grandeur,” Ms. Blackner said, noting that Port St. Lucie’s taxpayers were left to pay for a new firehouse in the development.

“The commissioners were supposed to be protecting the community,” she said. “That’s their job, and they were asleep at the switch.”

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