By Dom Nozzi, AICP
I served as a long-range comprehensive planner for the City of Gainesville, Florida for 20 years – just after the nationally famous state growth management laws were adopted. I was hired in 1986, and the law was adopted in 1985.
I was hired to help Gainesville comply with this 1985 Growth Management Law that the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) administered. The 1985 Growth Management law was adopted largely as a way to protect quality of life in FL and prevent costly sprawl.
Despite the widespread praise that the Florida growth management law has won throughout the nation since 1985 (including the mimicking of much of the Florida law by other states), I would find it difficult to shed tears if DCA (or the Growth Management law) were dismantled.
The Florida law, despite all of its admirable intentions, has almost entirely failed to reduce sprawl or promote the quality of life in Florida. Indeed, a good argument could be made that the law actually accelerates sprawl and the downward spiral of quality of life in Florida.
The primary reason for the failure is that the “teeth” of the Growth Management law is something called “road concurrency.” That is, new development cannot be approved unless it is demonstrated that adequate road capacity is available to serve the new development. This road concurrency standard, therefore, had as its implicit assumption that ensuring adequate road capacity and “free-flowing” traffic is the key to promoting quality of life and discouraging sprawl.
Many other “concurrency” measures are required by the state law (such as adequate recreation, schools, water, and housing), but road concurrency has evolved into the only concurrency rule that really matters. All of the others are routinely ignored.
The unintended consequence of the law as it is applied, then, is that roads are widened, in some cases, to maintain “adequate” road capacity, as a condition for development approval. When that is not possible, the developer is either not given permission to build, or the density of the proposed development is substantially reduced as a condition for development approval.
Sprawl is therefore powerfully and unintentionally promoted because widened roads are the most powerful engine I know of for sprawl inducement and the destruction of both quality of life and the economic health of town centers. And the Growth Management law is largely compelling developers and communities to widen roads, ironically and counterproductively.
Another enormous irony is that the road concurrency standard is anti-urban and anti-infill (which promotes sprawl). Why? Because town centers and other infill areas tend to have the LEAST available road capacity (the least amount of unused road space), and remote sprawl locations have the MOST available road capacity. So the unspoken message from the Growth Management law is to build in sprawl locations — not in town center locations — to get road concurrency approval.
In addition, if road capacity is not available for the proposed new development, it is quite common for the developer and the community to have insufficient funds to widen the road for more capacity. The common in-town solution is to therefore reduce the proposed development density (to reduce the number of car trips loaded onto the roads serving the development).
In other words, the effect of the Growth Management law in this case is to make the development more suburban in density—including new development in town centers, where more compact, higher-density development is desirable from the point of view of achieving community economic, transportation and quality of life objectives.
Given this “we are our own worst enemies” law, my hope is that this current challenge—in 2011–to the existence of the Department of Community Affairs and the Florida Growth Management law will result in much-needed reform.
What sort of reform?
Reform that can actually serve to promote quality of life, urbanism and sprawl reduction objectives. Florida needs a substantially revised Growth Management law. One that does not emphasize “adequate road capacity” as the key condition for development approval.
Instead, it needs one that requires something more in the direction of transect-driven, form-based coding as the key condition for approval (ie, one that is focused on providing for the full range of lifestyle and travel choices, not just the suburban choice).
The Florida growth management reform, then, needs to be one that as its centerpiece is designed to reward walkable, town center development – not punish it. One that is designed to promote a quality habitat for people, not cars.
All of this is not to say that the current Florida governor (Rick Scott) is in any way sympathetic to new urbanism and the principles I describe above. I don’t at all know where Scott stands on urban design, for example.
But I do believe that like with major hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana in recent times, this “dismantling” of the Department of Community Affairs and the Florida Growth Management law may be a critical opportunity for new urbanists and others seeking to reform and improve community design to be involved in the much-needed reform of state planning laws and the state planning agency (DCA) so that the law delivers what it is intended to deliver: compact urbanism, not car-based sprawl.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.