sprawlIf Floridians want to see the future, they should look to California. No, not gorgeous mountains, towering redwoods or dramatic, windswept beaches. Thanks to a bill passed by Florida lawmakers this spring and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist on June 1, Florida’s future will be one of more rampant growth, unbridled development and ever-expanding urban sprawl.

“With the stroke of a pen, the governor removed the most powerful tools to manage growth, require road improvements and prevent overdevelopment,” the St. Petersburg Times concluded in an editorial, dubbing Crist “Governor Gridlock.”

Environmentalists had hoped that Crist would veto the bill, which was pushed by developers and business interests under the guise of stimulating the state’s moribund economy and creating new jobs. But Crist, a Republican with a moderate, even populist image and high approval ratings due in part to his willingness to take on galloping home insurance rates, caved on this one, signing the bill with no public ceremony. He told reporters, “I know it’s probably one of those bills where nobody’s going to be overly happy on either side of the argument.”

Developers seem quite happy, though, since they’ve gotten rid of cumbersome, costly regulations enacted 25 years ago, regulations once considered something of a national model for reasonable growth management.

27862-hi-trafficGone are rules requiring them, in many instances, to build roads to handle the traffic created by new projects. Ditto for regs governing huge developments like regional malls and gigantic residential/commercial projects, which were previously subjected to extensive evaluations of how they would impact neighboring communities.

As a sop, the bill calls for a study of a “mobility fee” that would make developers pay for road improvements. But lawmakers would have to pass a law to adopt the new fee, something that seems unlikely without a sea-change in Tallahassee.

All of the state’s major environmental groups opposed the bill, which they said would turn back the clock to the go-go days of the 1970s and early 1980s, when gigantic boom towns gobbled up thousands of acres at a time and sprawl began oozing inexorably around Florida’s largest cities.

“We’re pretty disappointed with this outcome, Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida, one of the state’s leading environmental groups, told The Miami Herald.

While Florida’s beaten-up real estate market and a marked slowdown in the arrival of new residents in the current economic crisis may mean it will take a few years before developers really take advantage of the weakened regulations, that day seems inevitable.

Floridians who have cursed rush-hour traffic in urban corridors surrounding Orlando, Tampa/St. Pete, Jacksonville and the mega-sprawl stretching from West Palm Beach to south of Miami can now look forward to more – and more and more – of the same. Some may have taken solace after visits to LA, San Diego or the San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley areas in California (not to mention Atlanta), knowing that as bad as Florida’s traffic and urban sprawl were, at least it was worse in a few other places.

That may not be the case in a few years, thanks to Crist and the Republican-controlled Florida legislature.

Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.