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The Politics of the Growth Machine Eating South Florida

Eating South Florida


It is no surprise that appointments to Florida’s state agencies charged with protecting the environment are the truest indicator of the governor’s mind set. With two new appointees announced to the governing board of the water management district, Governor Charlie Crist continues to put greater distance between his politics and those of his predecessor, Jeb Bush.

Florida’s dominant industry is real estate development. Jeb Bush was propelled to office in 1998 by Miami real estate developers. His ambitions included regulatory reform that would enhance economic growth while also–the theory went–protecting the environment: more protection, less process neatly summed his goals for the environment (turning the phrase into the tag line of the state’s lead environmental agency).

Bush appointees to the South Florida Water Management District were all about industry cooperation and voluntary measures against "command and control" policies he imagined to be the legacy of inefficiencies and drags on growth that he inherited.

Today the real estate crash has imposed its own desperate laws on the aspirations of the Growth Machine to pave and set concrete for suburbs from one end of the state to the other, interspersed only by public lands that may or may not survive as natural habitat. (Mitigation really is a bummer.)

The conservative revolution that failed in Washington (except, perhaps, in judicial appointees to the federal bench and the extent to which federal environmental agencies have been thoroughly eviscerated through low-level infiltration of ideologues) was much easier to impose at the scale of the state.

So it goes in politics: the glories of rhetorical and linguistic flights of fancy wielded like political cudgels always have limited, and too often contrary effects to what was originally intended. Especially with the environment.

In Florida-as elsewhere-regulations relating to wetlands, water and other environmentally sensitive lands are the only curb on the Growth Machine. So it comes as no surprise that the real action of government takes place where those regulations are established and funded and enforced.

It is not by coincidence at the county, school-yard level that the most hardened, anti-environmental commissioners are assigned to the role of county commission chair. In Miami-Dade, Florida’s most populous and politically influential county, commissioners like Joe Martinez and Bruno Barreiro don’t get selected for sensitivity to the environment.

Natacha Seijas, from Hialeah–the political fortress of Cuban American developers–isn’t the continuous chair of the county environment committee because she loves manatees.

County managers, like Steve Shiver, don’t materialize without a reason: they are meant to reward and to foster what the Growth Machine wants. In the case of Shiver, it was the paving over of the last farmland in Miami Dade County with platted subdivisions during the biggest real estate bubble in a century.

Although Miami Dade is an extreme example of extremists selected to run environmental regulations, this is par for the course. It is also the river that runs through the worst credit crisis in the United States since the Great Depression.

This is not a point of view, of course, that you will read in state’s mainstream newspapers– preoccupied as they are with the loss of advertising revenue from developers. It is "time to move on", which is exactly how the Florida legislature would have it so no critical analysis would ever be applied to incumbents and their role in the massive errors of judgment that despoiled the Florida landscape.

Through his own appointments to the district governing board, Charlie Crist has proven sensitive to the ways in which the Bush legacy harmed comity in Florida, imposing a mean, nasty and vindictive tone to the predations of an industry gone wild.

Today’s Miami Herald notes the undercurrent of disappointment that replacements for the two Cuban American governing board members appointed by Bush, well-connected to the development and agriculture industries like Big Sugar, were not carefully matched by Crist.

But Crist gave the Growth Machine an appointee who runs part of the Disney operation– what bluer chip symbol than that, to assuage the concerns of the Growth Machine? And he appointed a Miami graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School– presumably as adapt at balancing competing interests as Crist’s appointed chair of the governing board, Eric Buermann.

No doubt Miami Cuban American developers are disappointed. So, too, the dynastic ambitions of former Governor Jeb Bush. In their extreme zeal to promote unsustainable growth, they’ve done enough to impose massive costs on the state of Florida and the nation. Let them now tend to their cash flows.

ALAN FARAGO of Coral Gables, who writes about the environment and the politics of South Florida, can be reached at