Hometown Democracy Amendment Won’t be on Fla.’s November Ballot

Fri February 08, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Brooks



Florida’s Hometown Democracy amendment won’t be on the November ballot and that has the state’s construction industry breathing a little easy, at least for a couple of years.

Hometown Democracy proponents failed to collect enough signed petitions by the Feb. 4 deadline, falling more than 65,000 signatures short of the needed 611,000, but they plan to try again in 2010.

The signatures Hometown Democracy collected this year are good for four years, giving them a head start for 2010.

“The fight is not over, we just delayed it for another two years,” said Bruce Kershner, executive vice president of Underground Utility Contractors of Florida. “We have to keep fighting it because their proposal is unworkable. As far as construction goes, there would be a moratorium on construction.”

The amendment would have allowed residents to vote on every proposed change to local growth management plans. The measure worried developers who were concerned it would create the need for votes on relatively minor changes. Supporters promoted it as seizing control from governments overly influenced by lobbying and campaign contributions.

“After three years and more than $1 million, Florida Hometown Democracy and its army of paid signature gatherers have come up short again,” Save Our Constitution chairman Barney Bishop, who also is chief executive officer of Associated Industries of Florida, said in a press release. “I commend the hard work of those involved in Save Our Constitution’s efforts to tell voters the real story behind Hometown Democracy and to bring to the forefront the group’s troubling tactics.”

Save Our Constitution (SOC), backed by the Associated Industries of Florida, is leading the revocation of Hometown Democracy signatures. The group was able to revoke more than 18,700 of the Hometown Democracy signed petitions.

“We employed a straightforward and effective campaign to better educate voters about the amendment and the state’s new signature retraction process,” said John Thrasher, the former Florida House speaker and co-chair of SOC. “Then we stepped back so voters could make an informed, personal choice. Many were genuinely elated they had an opportunity to re-examine their decision to sign a petition weeks or months ago.”

A rival initiative, Floridians for Smarter Growth, fell more than 290,000 signatures short of the needed signatures to get their proposed amendment on the November ballot. Critics of the rival amendment, which would allow residents to vote on any changes to local growth management plans if 10 percent of residents sign a petition, said it was aimed at confusing voters.

Inspired by California counties that require voter approval of major land use changes, West Palm Beach attorney Lesley Blackner hatched the plan for a statewide amendment that would allow local voters to approve all comprehensive plans and plan changes.

In 2003, she teamed with Tallahassee environmental and land use attorney Ross Burnaman and founded the Hometown Democracy committee. Almost instantly Blackner became a target for developers, builders and business groups who claimed the amendment would halt construction projects in Florida.

“It’s a vote-on-everything amendment,” said Bill Spann, president/CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Florida. “A few wealthy individuals and a couple of very large special interest groups wanted to stop growth in Florida. This was not a smart growth initiative. This was not a citizen’s initiative. What they were really proposing was no growth and that would have had a devastating effect on Florida’s economy.

“It’s hard to think that something called ’Hometown’ and ’Democracy’ can be bad, but it really was a scam.”

While builders and developers may be terrified of Hometown Democracy, a recent poll for Leadership Florida showed 52 percent believed elected officials were not managing growth properly. Combined with overdevelopment in south and central Florida, a statewide water shortage and the defeat of local pro-growth incumbents, many agree there is a strong anti-growth sentiment in the state.

“Smart, well-planned, environmentally sensitive growth is what most Floridians say they want,” Spann said. “You have to look at the options, look at the cost benefits and make some hard decisions and that’s what our elected leaders get paid to do.”

Kershner agreed, saying he believes there’s a happy medium that can be reached when it comes to future development.

“We certainly believe in smarter growth, but not no growth and we think that’s what Hometown Democracy means,” Kershner said. “We were supportive of the Smarter Growth initiative. It sets parameters on what type of projects could go to the voters. It’s less intrusive that what Hometown was trying to do.”

Spann said it’s not necessary to put every change no matter how minor to every comprehensive plan in Florida to a vote. He said if that were to happen, “we would essentially do nothing but stand at the ballot box.”

“There are ways to do this in an intelligent, economically sensitive, environmentally sensitive fashion so we can grow our robust economy in an intelligent fashion rather than a reactive fashion,” Spann said.

While Hometown Democracy has its detractors, it does have the support of some local Audubon chapters, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter and Save the Manatee Club.

Tom Larson, chair of the Sierra Club, Northeast Florida Group, believes opponents have exaggerated the number of proposed comp plan changes voters will have to decide. He also dismisses the argument that people won’t know what they’re voting for.

Neither Blackner or Burnaman could be reached for comment.

With the amendment off the 2008 ballot, supporters and opponents are looking ahead to 2010.

“They didn’t make it in 2008 and we have to stay vigilant and make sure they don’t make it in 2010,” said Spann, a sentiment shared by others in the construction industry.

“We can breathe easy for a little while,” Kershner said. “We’re going to regroup in the coming months because we fully expect Hometown to come back and continue to try and get their signatures. We’ve won the battle, but the war is still raging.”

CEG