Bill banning public votes on local land use yanked amid lack of support
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Woman with referendum ballot making decision on white background, closeup
It may return next week.

A bill that would prohibit local land development regulations from being changed through voter referendums didn’t make it past its first Senate committee hearing.

Doral Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, its sponsor, pulled the measure (SB 856) before members of the Senate Community Affairs Committee could cast votes.

“It wasn’t going to pass,” she told Florida Politics shortly afterward.

The nine-member committee’s Chair, Miami Republican Sen. Alexis Calatayud, was absent from the meeting to attend the signing of her “Live Local Act” bill. She may have represented a tie-breaking vote.

Rodriguez said she’ll probably bring her bill back for reconsideration next week.

SB 856 and its analogue in the House (HB 41) by Miami Republican Rep. Alina García carry similar titles. Rodriguez’s is called “Amendment to Land Use Development Regulations.” García’s version, which cleared both committees to which it was assigned and awaits a House floor vote, is called “Land Development Initiatives and Referendum Processes.”

Proponents say the legislation reflects America’s true form of government, a democratic republic in which elected leaders make decisions on behalf of the voters who put them in office. They argue voter referendums on decisions over land use are more representative of a direct democracy form of government.

“This is perfectly appropriate and takes people out of a situation (where they’re voting) on something they have no idea what they voting on half the time, when you throw something that massive on the ballot,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Lady Lake Republican who owns and operates several funeral homes across the state.

Critics, conversely, have labeled it the “protect developers from citizens” bill. They contend it would further shift power from the many to the few and effectively cut residents out of decisions concerning local growth management and planning.

“We are basically taking away the ability for citizens across the state of Florida to have any input on the character of their community if they can’t even have a referendum on land use regulations,” said Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida, which describes itself as “a nonprofit, smart-growth advocacy organization.”

Rodriguez said her bill is meant to “close a loophole” in Florida’s existing Community Planning Act, which former Gov. Rick Scott signed in May 2011 to ban public votes on development orders and various amendments to local comprehensive plans and maps. It would work retroactively to affect all voter-initiated changes to land use authority since the law went into effect.

The Community Planning Act came in response to a statewide referendum that would have amended the Florida Constitution by requiring voter approval for all comprehensive plan and map amendments. The effort failed Nov. 2, 2010, with less than 33% support.

Since then, however, municipal residents in Florida have mounted numerous attempts to wrest control over future zoning and land use changes from their locally elected officials. There have been recent such efforts in the affluent village of Pinecrest, which failed by a margin similar to the 2010 state referendum, and an ongoing attempt in Venice.

Baxley attributed those attempts to a not-in-my-backyard attitude held by people whose concerns of overdevelopment and sprawl are largely overblown.

“Get on an airplane if you think we’ve covered everything up. Just ride from Ocala, Lake County and see how much open land there is. There are millions and millions and millions of trees just from here (in Tallahassee) to Lake County, and yet we’re all in this uproar (that) we’re going to destroy the earth,” he said.

“I’m glad there’s some pressure to balance this equation … but at the same time we’ve got to be reasonable. We’ve got to do something to accommodate the two-legged animals walking around here on this planet.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democratic lawyer from Miami, said that while Baxley’s assessment is true of his own area and others like it, the situation is quite different across much of South Florida, particularly in a dense metropolis like Miami.

“We’re fully built out,” he said. “Everything’s got to be vertical. Everything’s got to be redone. It’s very expensive. It’s intense.”

Pizzo disputed Baxley’s assertion that, as Pizzo put it, voters are “not bright enough to understand what they’re voting for.”

“I have much greater faith,” he said.

“If I was seeking (development) opportunities … I would go to your district, Sen. Baxley, because there are none in mine,” Pizzo added. “And the process is very participatory and deliberate in mine.”

David Cullen, a lobbyist for environmental nonprofit Sierra Club Florida suggested there is a logical disconnect between bills like SB 856/HB 41 and another measure the Senate passed earlier this month giving businesses a state-sanctioned path to sue local governments and halt the enforcement of ordinances that hurt their profits.

“It’s kind of a whiplash situation, folks,” he said. “This Senate passed a bill that allows one person to stop the enforcement of a local ordinance, and this bill — it blocks an entire community from following the legal process to hold an election to determine policy.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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