Sunday, November 25, 2007

How would voting on changes to Comprehensive Plans work?

Proponents of the Hometown Democracy movement are circulating a petition that would put an item on the ballot - potentially for the November 2008 statewide election. The ballot item would ask the voters to approve or a deny a change in the way local governments around the state handle their adoption of new comprehensive plans and amendments to existing plans by requiring a referendum on those items. The language from the petition appears below:

I thought it would be a good idea to show just what is involved when a local government body amends its comprehensive plan. And, it turns out that it is timely as the County is wrapping up one of its comprehensive plan amendment cycles.

The bulk of this post contains items from the Board of County Commissioners agenda for the adoption hearing on changes to the Palm Beach County Comprehensive Plan. This is the second of the two amendments allowed by state statute for the year 2007. The public hearing will take place tomorrow. The agenda itself is 14 pages long. If you would like to go to the County's site with the actual agenda and see the links to the back-up material, you can click here.

If you click on the active links, that will take you to the back-up information on each item, which usually - at a minimum - adds about 50 pages per item of material. This information includes maps, information on adjacent properties, minutes from other County advisory boards with their recommendations, issues related to compatibility and traffic impacts, the nature of the changes requested and some details regarding the ultimate "site specific" improvements contemplated by the applicants. (Note: This example is not as involved as other rounds of changes as the property specific requests were processed by the County earlier this year)

One type of comprehensive plan amendment deals with property specific changes to future land use designations. Another type deals with amendments to the actual text of the comprehensive plan. Both are considered major amendments and entail complete review by all sorts of state and regional agencies. The Department of Community Affairs (DCA) is the ultimate review body. The amendments appearing on the agenda below include both types. Since this is the adoption hearing, these proposed amendments have been reviewed by DCA. You will see that some items are still being worked on by staff and will appear on future rounds of amendments once the details are sorted out and general agreement has been reached between the DCA, local government, any intervening parties and property owners, if applicable.

Now, looking through these various items contained in this agenda, I think you are getting the idea that there is a great amount of detail and complexity associated with each proposed change. In order for a thorough understanding of the items, and in order to make an informed individual decision would require some of the following. It would require those voters, assuming the Hometown Democracy petition drive is successful and ultimately approved at a general election, to be familiar with the comprehensive planning provisions of the State of Florida.

If there is any hope of quality decisions being made through approval or denial of comprehensive plan amendments, voters would need to understand the difference between land use designations and zoning regulations. They should also have a good working knowledge of the local government's current comprehensive plan and the various elements (chapters) that are in it, what concurrency means and how it is implemented, what a capital improvements program is and how it relates to level of service standards for public facilities, which zoning districts implement the various land use plan designations in the local comprehensive plan, etc. They should also know about each one of the particular site and property characteristics of each amendment and their impacts/implications. There are also issues related to adjacent municipalities with impacts and changes "just over the line".

Imagine the items contained here, in this agenda, being placed upon a ballot for all the residents of Palm Beach County to approve or deny. A big issue would be where to draw the line regarding who actually votes for what on comprehensive plan amendments. There are some issues contained within the Palm Beach County comprehensive plan that include the incorporated municipalities - like the traffic performance standard provisions for example.
Then we get to the ballot box - let's say a typical November ballot. Already, there is fall off on longer ballots as you go through the various governmental subdivisions from federal, state, county, special districts, municipalities. These could have referendum items and always have elected representatives of every kind. Then you would get down to the items related to changes to the local government comprehensive plans. How much attention do you think these will get? I would guess a small portion of the total voter pool would vote on these changes, with most of the votes coming from those that are motivated to be against the proposed change for one reason or another. I am not insinuating that those reasons to vote against may not be valid, but would it really be representative of the vote of the electorate? And that is assuming everyone is equally well-informed on every requested change. How would you deal with people in Jupiter Farms voting for a change that would affect a small area in west Delray Beach, for example?
So, while it tugs at the heartstrings and elevates the hope of those that wish to bring development to its knees in the state, it would like push development to areas where there would be the population of voters that would over-ride comprehensive plan changes. This could have perilous environmental consequences by adding speed to an already present trend.
I agree there are areas that need work in Florida related to growth management. One is in the way of educating the population - through the addition of curriculum in schools (competing with the FCAT?) - and general public service announcements and courses that would emphasize the importance of planning and land use decisions on the built and natural environments. We also need to be engaging people in the already existing public process where they feel alienated from decisions and decision makers.
Look at the items on this agenda and think about the quality of your decision, the time you have to devote to research these and the relative impact that you would incur. How comfortable would you be on voting these items up or down?
Note that my debate with Drew Martin on this issue has been changed to 6 p.m. tomorrow from the originally advertised time of 8 p.m. I will be posting a thread on Lake Worth Talk introducing the show and reminding people of the time change. There will be space to post your comments and questions as well.