When you go to the polls on November 2, you will find your ballot festooned with six Florida constitutional measures, including Amendment 4, labeled by its sponsors as “Hometown Democracy”. If it were to pass, the Amendment would require a referendum election on any change to a city or county comprehensive land-use plan.
Critics of the Amendment feel it would hamstring the capacity of local government to timely react to the community’s ever-changing health, safety and welfare needs and would potentially cripple Florida’s efforts to resuscitate its sputtering economy; while proponents of the Amendment are demanding that citizens be given the last say in land-use decisions in order to put the brakes on growth.
Additionally, opponents of the Amendment argue that if Amendment 4 becomes law, its implementation will trigger legal challenges aimed at every facet of the referendum election, including the length, scope and clarity of the ballot summary; the timing of the vote; and who must bear the massive election cost. They cite the recent experience of City of St. Pete Beach whose residents amended their own City charter to require voter approval of certain land-use changes. Even though those charter amendments were less sweeping than Amendment 4, they nevertheless spawned a series of lawsuits and countersuits entangling the city and growth opponents and proponents. Thus far, the diminutive city has spent $765,000 on legal fees–and the battle goes on.
Comprehensive land-use plans are needed to guide city and county growth and development. Under current law, decisions to change these plans are delegated exclusively to our elected county and city commissioners (or council members), subject to oversight by a state planning agency. These decisions are never made in a vacuum.
In addition to soliciting input from the public at the advertised hearings and receiving advice from professional staff, the commissioners devote months of intense study assessing whether the proposed changes will achieve a greater good. But the ultimate safeguard against improvident decisions rests with the voters who have the power to oust from office any commissioners who flagrantly vote “wrong” on land use plan changes.
Exponents of the Hometown Democracy Amendment feel that comprehensive plans should be harder to amend. They say that in recent years, the Florida legislature has substantially weakened our protections against inappropriate development; arguing that a plebiscite on land use decisions offers the best means of regaining control of a careening vehicle.
But to comprehend the reach of Amendment 4, consider this real-life illustration: Over the years, a local church acquired adjacent lots on which it planned to rebuild and expand its facilities. Some of the lots were in the City of Sarasota; the rest were in unincorporated Sarasota County. In order to consolidate land use regulation for the church campus under a single jurisdiction, the church asked the city to annex the unincorporated lots, triggering a requirement for the city to change its comprehensive plan to depict the annexed lands on its land use map. If Amendment 4 had been in effect, it would have required this minor change in the map to be approved in a referendum election in which voters residing clear across town would have been summoned to decide the destiny of the small church, likely without the benefit of facts and analysis necessary to render such a decision. Even if the measure had passed, the election cost alone would have consumed the lion’s share of the church’s finances, making the modest expansion impractical.
Most would agree that governmental actions should require prior voter approval when they dip into our wallets for new taxes or increase public debt limits. Those who champion Amendment 4 take it step farther, arguing this same principle should also apply to land-use decisions, that citizens should be given the most important seat at the table, so to speak. But critics of the Amendment counter that the concept of routinely rounding up voters and shepherding them to the polls to scroll down page after page of ballot summaries befogged with technical planning gibberish would most assuredly beget voter fatigue, apathy, and, eventually, rebellion. They contend that if indeed there is a need to further strengthen public participation in land use plan changes, more practical and effective ways should be pursued, ones that don’t push voters over the edge.
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