ORLANDO, FL (AP) Gary Lee knows you can’t stop growth. He understands the economic advantages it brings and the job opportunities it affords.
But the Kissimmee native who grew up on acres of rural land hates “not being able to drive five miles in less than 15 minutes” and, truthfully, he can’t imagine raising his grandchildren in a region plagued by urban sprawl.
In an attempt to alleviate problems central Florida’s booming population will cause, regional leaders are working across city and county lines to address issues such as sprawl, overcrowded schools, traffic congestion, affordable housing and ways to protect environmentally-sensitive land.
Once leaders agree on a blueprint for how they want the region to look in 50 years, the seven counties and 86 cities will be expected to grow accordingly. The regional plan would be the first in Florida, officials said, and one of few in the nation.
But getting community leaders to lay aside their own interests to agree upon a growth plan can be daunting. And if the area continues to grow without regional planning, residents can expect more air pollution, a dwindling water supply, increased bumper-to-bumper traffic and decreased access to natural recreational areas, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. The region’s population is expected to double to 7 million by 2050.
The Orlando region will serve as a test case for other parts of the Sunshine State, including the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. South Florida grew so rapidly that national planning experts said the area didn’t have the luxury of any long-range planning.
“The decisions [central Florida] makes collectively will establish what Florida will be in the next 50 years,” Secretary Thaddeus Cohen of the state Department of Community Affairs said. “The window is that small, because we’re growing that rapidly.”
Community leaders for $850,000 project — “How Shall We Grow?” — haven’t decided how they will implement the plan, whether they’ll rely on legislation like Portland, OR, or voluntary implementation like Salt Lake City.
“A variety of it could be laws, it could be financial funding,” Project Director Shelley Lauten said. “I bet it will be a combination of everything.”
Portland is the only city in the country where an elected regional government uses legislation to enforce a growth plan.
Their “Metro” model is rare, said Marya Morris of the American Planning Association in Washington, D.C. While optimal in terms of achievement, using laws to force compliance isn’t palpable to most regions.
“It’s not the easiest way to do planning because it’s very controversial,” Morris said.
But having elected regional officials does provide direct accountability to the public, said Metro President David Bragdon.
Metro champions environmental causes, plans for land use and transportation, manages garbage disposal and recycling for 1.3 million residents in three counties and 25 cities surrounding Portland.
“There’s some unity in the governance structure. There’s no sort of opting out because all these issues require broad participation,” Bragdon said. “If the governance structure is fragmented, which it is in most places, it’s harder to get things accomplished.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Envision Utah, a small nonprofit organization with no regulatory authority and no financial incentives. The group covers an area of 1.7 million residents, who comprise 80 percent of that state’s population.
Although voluntary implementation is not always as successful in accomplishing the result, Envision Utah planning director Tedd Knowlton said locals weren’t comfortable with the idea of a regional governing body wielding so much control.
Still, 60 percent of communities have adopted some Envision Utah supported strategy through their codes and ordinances. “That’s substantial change,” he said.
Before Envision Utah, voters vetoed a light rail system in 1992. Now 80 percent of the population approves of the mass transportation project, Knowlton said.
Several other regions around the country also have replicated Utah’s model, including Austin, TX; Baltimore, MD; and Sacramento, CA.
Despite the benefits, regional planning can be a tough sell to city officials, experts said, but they need to understand that their decisions affect the roads, schools and infrastructure of neighboring cities.
“Their gut instinct is to be parochial,” Bragdon said. “You have to instill a sense of shared responsibility, that there’s an interdependence so that their lot is really cast with the broader region.”
Officials from central Florida’s seven counties expressed their individual concerns at a kickoff meeting for the 15-month program held in March.
Seminole County is the third smallest county in the state with a population of 400,000 residents. But it boasts the state’s best schools and has set aside 7,000 acres of natural land, Seminole County Commissioner Brenda Carey said.
“How do we maintain all that?” Carey asked.
The differences couldn’t be starker between neighboring Osceola and Orange counties. In Osceola, officials joke cows almost outnumber people. Orange County has a bustling downtown, theme parks and a major university.
Despite individual concerns, community leaders agree now is the time to look beyond county lines and start planning.
“We need to be asking what have you done for your region, not what have you done for your city, county,” Osceola County Commissioner Ken Shipley said. CEG