On November 2nd Florida residents overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to the State’s Constitution that would have given them the final say in all municipal land use decisions. Amendment 4, which was defeated 67% to 33%, would have granted Floridians the right to vote on major development projects in their community by requiring a referendum every time a city or county changed its “Comprehensive Land Use Plan.” Local governments in Florida are notorious for making developer-driven decisions, and the proposed Amendment 4 was an attempt to decrease the power of private developers in land use decisions, and return to a more inclusive planning process.
In general, local governments have a strong incentive to pursue policies that enhance their community’s economic vitality, so their decisions are often swayed by private developers promising increased tax revenues through spatial growth. Amendment 4’s sponsor, Florida Hometown Democracy, Inc., claims that “mismanaged growth destroys communities.” Florida Times-Union columnist Ron Littlepage wrote about Amendment 4, “direct democracy on land use changes may be the only way to promote smart growth in Florida.” Florida’s landscape is wrought with the ill effects of developer-driven municipal decision-making. Sprawling neighborhoods, curvilinear streets, and dead-end cul-de-sacs are the product of a developer’s dream, not a citizen’s.
History may or may not judge Amendment 4 a missed opportunity. The Amendment certainly embodied the need to reform fundamental procedures for land use decisions, which have far-reaching and long-lasting implications. Even though the stated objective of Amendment 4 was to “revive the comprehensive planning process,” likely it would not have had that effect. Instead, the Amendment would have simply shifted decision-making power from private developers to local residents, essentially providing constitutional support for the one-sided land use decisions that have plagued Florida for years. Floridians also feared the referendum process proposed by Amendment 4 would waste precious taxpayer dollars at a time when Florida’s local governments are facing extreme shortfalls.
Not to be dismissed, Amendment 4’s appearance on Florida’s ballot indicates that something needs to change. One of the basic principles of land use planning is that land use decisions should be made in accordance with the municipality’s Comprehensive Plan, based on standards outlined in the zoning and land use codes. This principle often conflicts with the right of private investors and local residents to participate in land use decisions, because it requires governments to simultaneously balance public and private interests.
Yet this is the very reason Amendment 4 is not the solution. The municipal decision-making process proceeds from a series of events, some of which necessitate community involvement, such as analyzing the long term health of the city, and others that do not, such as compliance with zoning and land use codes. Therefore, the problem is not who makes the decisions or how the decisions are made, but when the public participates in the decision-making process. Future ballot initiatives that address the municipal land use decision-making process should focus on the timing of community involvement instead.
Further reading on land use planning: A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities by Donald L. Elliot
Lauren Suerth is in the Masters in Natural Resources Studies program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and is focusing on land use law and policy, and sustainable development law and policy.