Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dan Lobeck: Love the developers, but love our county more

Re-posted from the Herald-Tribune

Published: Thursday, September 25, 2014 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 5:44 p.m.
I hugged Pat Neal at a recent meeting, at his request.
I love and appreciate developers, as public relations consultant Rod Thomson urges in his Sept. 22 guest column.
As he points out, they built my home and office and the stores where I shop. Indeed, my law practice is mainly for condominiums and homeowners' associations, all built by developers.
My father, as a minister, urged us to love all people.
But he also said we should not love everything they do.
Rod apparently wants us to ignore that some developers such as Pat Neal, Randy Benderson, Carlos Beruff, Rex Jensen and others make a very unlovable practice of controlling local politics to their benefit in ways that harm the vast majority of everyone else.
They invest in county commissioners who then return the favor millionsfold with massive urban sprawl; slashing impact fees and fiscal neutrality designed to make developers pay their own way for roads and schools; allowing traffic gridlock by repealing concurrency and other controls; cutting environmental protections; disregarding neighborhoods; packing the Planning Commission with people who make their living in development; repealing limits on the size of shopping centers; selling public land to a developer far below the county's appraised value; allowing commercial and residential development in districts designated for higher-paying industry and office jobs; and much more.
On Oct. 22, the Sarasota County Commission will complete its gutting of the Sarasota 2050 Plan, adopting changes urged by developers in closed meetings.
All timing is repealed, opening up rural lands to urban development all at one time. Fiscal neutrality will become a sham with the repeal of follow-up reports that test false assumptions, a new methodology designed to minimize or eliminate developer payments and a new "credit" for building affordable housing that is already required.
Other changes, some approved, eliminate almost all of the promised off-site greenways and turn bucolic hamlets into sprawling subdivisions. Already, requirements for mixed use, village centers, walkability, road setbacks, buffers, open space and greenbelts have been so weakened as to make them almost meaningless.
What was a trade-off compromise for a better form of growth will instead become standard urban sprawl to the horizon and beyond.
Citizen protests of such measures have been met with sneering dismissal and derision from commissioners, such as Joe Barbetta's comment that an outpouring of thousands of emails represented only a small percentage of the total county population.
Rod Thomson plays on that theme, calling critics of developers' excesses a "loud, hyperbole-wielding minority."
Sarasota County's recent public opinion poll shows otherwise. "Growth and development" is the top concern, and when combined with traffic ranks three times higher than the third concern, schools. Although jobs and the economy topped the list in a statewide survey, it came in fourth here at 11 percent. Yes, Rod, many local residents are concerned with development excesses, not just what you call the "petty and envious" few.
Rod cites that same poll for the finding that 47 percent of people trust our county officials at least "most of the time." Well, that shows that most people don't trust them. And that's much lower than the 72 percent nationwide who trust local government, according to a Gallup poll published the same day as Rod's column.
Rod cites the fact that other counties grew faster than Sarasota County from 2000 to 2010 as proof that we are not suffering from "out-of-control growth."
That was then. This is now. The gutting of Sarasota 2050, slashing of impact fees, repeal of concurrency and other actions to dismantle growth management are only now occurring. It is the prospect of out-of-control growth that is of concern, not past trends when controls were in place.
We do not want a "lack of growth," as Rod claims. Sarasota County is not Rod's hometown of Flint, Michigan. People will want to move here so long as we keep this a special place in which to live, work and play. And we already have enough unbuilt capacity in approved plans to meet population projections for decades.
I'm a refugee from Fort Lauderdale who came here for our better quality of life. I know that many others share that story. But if we sacrifice good growth management on an altar of overreaching greed, if we let a few developers keep calling the shots in our politics, if the people do not wake up and seize back control, we will kill the goose that lays the golden egg, to the detriment of us all.
Rod Thomson is widely rumored as the developers' County Commission candidate in 2016, when Carolyn Mason steps down. Just as with developers, I like and appreciate Rod. I just hope he is never in a position to set policy for his patrons.
We should love our county more than that.
Dan Lobeck is a Sarasota attorney and president of Control Growth Now,

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