A St. Petersburg Times Editorial People vs. powerful

In Print: Monday, September 14, 2009

In Florida, there is one thing tougher than fighting city hall: fighting a powerful developer. After years of effort, Susan Woods and Karen Lynn Recio, two tenacious Marion County residents, appeared to have finally killed an unnecessary 400-acre residential development project proposed for their horse-country community. They even got a state administrative law judge to rule against the project after the state initially approved it. But that sweet victory could turn into bitter defeat on Tuesday when an appeal by the developer comes before the governor and Cabinet. The law is on the residents’ side, but powerful political forces in Tallahassee are lobbying against them.

This case is much bigger than whether 796 homes can be built on 400 acres in a rural area near Ocala where only 40 homes are allowed under current land use plans. The Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business interests are supporting the developer because they see this case as an opportunity to sweep away the requirement for a demonstration of need, a key control on unchecked growth.

Woods, who runs a small horse farm, and Recio have no legal training or resources to speak of, yet they successfully challenged the land use changes sought by the family of Bernard Castro, the founder of Castro Convertibles sofa company, which is seeking to develop land it owns. How did Woods and Recio accomplish this feat, even after the county and initially the state Department of Community Affairs had approved the changes? They noticed that the demonstration of need was missing in DCA’s evaluation of the project, something required by both state law and Marion County policy.

A need finding is a growth management tool that predicts population growth and the housing that will be required to accommodate the new residents. Requiring a demonstration of need before an amendment to a comprehensive plan may be approved is one way citizens have to hold a community to its land use promises. It can slow the development of unnecessary projects that encourage sprawl, harm property values and burden local government with the cost of unnecessary infrastructure.

To DCA’s credit, the agency admitted its error that no need finding was made, and with the agency’s support the women won their challenge before an administrative law judge. DCA determined that Marion County’s comprehensive plan already had substantial capacity for growth, and that changing land use to accommodate more dwellings was not advisable.

But the developer has taken the case to the governor and Cabinet, who will hear the appeal on Tuesday. Tom Pelham, the DCA secretary, is right to be concerned about the outcome. If the governor and Cabinet overturn the judge’s ruling, it would signal to developers that a demonstration of need is easily dispensed with if the state’s top politicians are lobbied by enough powerful business interests.

Woods and Recio deserve this win. They were right. There is no need in Marion County to build more housing, not when approved housing developments are not being built due to lack of demand and the county is losing population. While Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed the gutting of key portions of growth management law this spring, he has at times stood up for the little people against utilities and other powerful interests. He ought to stand up for these determined women on Tuesday.

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