Bruce Ritchie: Will bill to end state review of large developments pass?

A bill that would substantially change state review of proposed large development projects has been filed, but whether it will pass the Senate and House remains a big question.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby and chairman of the Senate committee that oversees growth management, has filed SB 562, which would eliminate the existing state review process for projects such as shopping malls and developments with several hundred homes or more.

Those projects previously have been reviewed by state agencies and regional planning councils as designated developments of regional impact, or DRIs. But that process has long been criticized by developers for being costly, duplicative and time-consuming.

Some land-use lawyers say there is a need to revisit unrealistic requirements placed on developments years ago.

In 2011, the Legislature scaled back oversight of most local land-use decisions. But the state maintained oversight of DRIs, although some large developments instead now go through the streamlined “coordinated review” process.

Simpson says state law actually might create worse developments rather than protecting the environment as supporters of the DRI review process say. He says his bill would encourage projects that combat urban sprawl, including mixed-use, transit-oriented developments.

Nevertheless, the environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida is raising concerns about dealing with developments of regional impact again during the legislative session, which begins March 3.

“We ought to just leave the DRI process alone,” Charles Pattison, legislative director of 1000 Friends of Florida, recently told the Florida chapter of the American Planning Association. “If it is changed … it has to be part of a comprehensive package.”

The Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties also have raised concerns. They say the DRI process now allows neighboring cities and counties to address potential problems, such as traffic congestion, before developments are approved.

Nancy Linnan, a land-use lawyer who has worked in the past with the Association of Florida Community Developers, said even if legislation doesn’t pass this year to address DRIs, there is a need to deal with issues related to those big developments.

She said developers still must go through a cumbersome review processes to get changes made to their development plans. She said the Legislature should decide other issues including whether the DRI designation should be allowed to expire or die once a development is substantially completed.

Linda Loomis Shelley, a former secretary of the Department of Community Affairs and a land-use attorney, said she doesn’t expect a DRI bill to pass in the upcoming session because of the Legislature’s focus on other issues.

She also said the DRI process “is a vestige of its former self” because of changes made by the Legislature in recent years.

“The bottom line is very few projects are subject to the DRI process even in places where you might say that they (the project reviews) would be needed,” Shelley said.

The DRI process, she said, created better projects in the past. But she said many of those approved developments are burdened by permitting conditions, such as a required mix of development types, that might no longer work in the marketplace.

“I call them aging ladies,” Shelley said. “They are stranded out there. … There has to be some appreciation for resurrecting these projects and allowing them to move forward.”

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of  Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bruce Ritchie


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