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The Politics of Growth

The Division of Florida

by ALAN FARAGO

The US presidential campaign has only addressed in generic terms the wreckage caused by Wall Street, the absence of financial regulation and the wages of greed, and not at all how that feeding tube connects locally: too many platted subdivisions in farmland and wetlands and condos barricading Florida’s coasts. It is hard times for builders and their supply chain. But make no mistake: this potent source of political money from developers that matches up with big agriculture is all intent on business as usual, even in the face of the worst collapse in real estate markets since the Great Depression.

The absence of regulation of financial derivatives is woven together with weak, ineffective regulations meant to tame the growth of suburbs into the Everglades and condos on the ocean front. But solving this conundrum is not what you hear. From Florida City and Homestead to Naples and Orlando, from Jacksonville to Tampa: the entire slate of interests that propelled the politics of growth would just as soon forget that the piling up of foreclosures, misery, and massive budget deficits of municipal and state governments happened despite civic opposition to sprawl, despite the clamor of environmentalists and a few brave scientists willing to risk their career prospects and income. Bail us out, and, forget: that’s the call.

As election day approaches, it is important to highlight the fact that not only do the assembled interests want to forget; they also want things to be exactly the same once we come out from the end of this dark economic tunnel.

Of plans by the Orange County Commission to vote to include 4,600 additional acres within the urban-service boundary despite the inventory of almost 25,000 unsold homes in Orange and Seminole Counties, columnist Mike Thomas recently wrote: “This is like watching an emphysema patient smoking through a tracheotomy tube.” (Shady deal on Deseret adds to housing woes, Orlando Sentinel, October 28, 2008)

That is the right image to pair with that of Miami-Dade ramrod for development, county commissioner Natacha Seijas who regularly demagogues from the dais about rejecting state mandates, demanding “local control”, who nevertheless embraced last week news that the federal Environmental Protect Agency will study the county’s Urban Development Boundary. Funny how a lame duck White House that neutered the EPA for eight long years has taken a sudden interest in Miami Dade County development.

The fact is that Jeb Bush loyalists are stuck with land bought at speculative values before the real estate markets collapsed. They bought at the top and need help being let down. They depend on the Urban Development Boundary being moved to include their property for a massive new development planned by Lennar—more than 6,000 homes—despite the wreckage of foreclosures and half-empty subdivisions scattered throughout the region. They aren’t getting what they want with the Crist administration.

Again, Thomas has it right: “This is what we do. We clear land and build houses. That is why (Florida) ranks among the hardest-hit areas in the nation from the real-estate collapse. It is why the worsening recession will be particularly brutal here.”

Then there is Martin County, where pro-growth county commission candidates are running as a slate thanks to a political action committee mis-titled "Your Friends and Neighbors in Martin County", trying to plow its own platted subdivisions into farmland bordering the Everglades. Since August, the PAC has been mailing large, expensive color postcards urging people to call and thank the candidates for their "commitment to keeping Martin County beautiful", for "protecting our river," or for promising "lower taxes and less waste." (Martin Paradise Lost? Palm Beach Post, August 31, 2008).

The PAC is a sham, a "local, grass-roots organization committed to encouraging smart choices for a better, stronger future for Martin County"; a vehicle for the last minute infusion of tens of thousands from affiliates of the Fanjul’s Florida Crystals (Big Sugar), King Ranch and other speculators.

"Martin County Commission candidates Doug Smith, Patrick Hayes and Ed Ciampi, all Republicans supported by the growth industry, seem to be running as a team and acting as if they’ve scheduled their victory party. A single worker placed their signs together last week, pounding them into the ground at locations around the county. It’s not surprising that campaign-finance reports show that more than 20 donors gave to all three. With just 16 days until the election, the razzle-dazzle to dress up these wolves in environmental sheep suits is just beginning. The Palm City Chamber of Commerce endorsed the three caballeros, and invited the men to a "quick fire forum" lunch last week with a "speed-dating" format. Each sat and talked to chamber members for five minutes, then moved to another table. Other candidates who asked to attend were turned away." (Martin Campaign Contrasts, Palm Beach Post, October 19, 2008)

This November, Florida voters could have had an opportunity to vote on a measure to tame uncontrolled growth. But the citizens’ initiative, called Florida Hometown Democracy, was derailed on the verge of qualifying for the ballot; sabotaged by compliant county supervisors of elections, their staff and a Republican legislature that kept changing the rules of the game as petitions advanced toward the required number. And the Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries and their hired guns who pledged to do "whatever it takes" to defeat the measure, that would require amendments to local growth plans to pass the muster of voters instead of compliant municipal and county commissions.

Florida is a state, today, depicted as a struggle between evenly-divided politics of red and blue. The more accurate picture of what divides Florida is the politics of growth.

ALAN FARAGO, who writes on the environment and politics from Coral Gables, Florida, and can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com