Happy New Year, everybody — and by everybody we include all the newcomers arriving daily in the Sunshine State. Even though, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest figures announced Monday, Florida won’t surpass New York to become the third-most populous state after California and Texas this year, we’re still growing at a phenomenal rate: 3.7 percent annually since 2010. New York’s growth rate, by contrast, is 1.3 percent annually.
What stands between us and New York for third place? A total of 98,267 souls, says the Census Bureau. That many more people will make New York home rather than Florida. But if Florida continues to grow at its current rate, we’re not many years away from moving up a notch on the population scale.
We need to be ready for that day. Whether you believe that more growth is good for the state’s economy or that Florida has too many people already, continued migration here has implications for all of us. More crowded roads, yes, but also a resurgent long-term real-estate market. More demands for government services, but also more spending for goods and services by a growing number of residents, meaning more job creation. More pressure on public schools, but with increased property taxes to meet the demand, and so forth.
How we deal with growth’s two-edged sword depends a lot on what we do with the positive side of it. As communities, we can grow stupid or smart. For instance, consider the St. Lucie County Commission, which accepted in principle the tenets of a regional smart growth blueprint called The Seven/50 Project from South Florida’s two regional planning councils — and then promptly voted to opt out of cooperating with the long-term project. Other Gold Coast county commissions are considering doing the same thing.
That’s a foolish, short-sighted choice. The Seven/50 project stands for the seven South Florida counties in the region working together to make the next 50 years prosperous for all while at the same time coming up with innovative solutions to solve our most challenging problems — dealing with increasing traffic by investing in more mass transit, protecting natural resources from encroaching development with better urban planning to curb urban sprawl, growing up, not out, and strengthening coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels.
There really isn’t any choice about reckoning with these challenges. They’ll smack us upside the head, one way or another.
What prompted the St. Lucie County Commission to opt out of the Seven/50 project was a public litany from a long succession of critics, most of whom admitted that they had never read the proposed plan or even skimmed an outline. Criticisms ranged from Seven/50 being a federal plot to wrest all local control from residents to a scheme to destroy private property rights.
Even though its supporters explained that the project is intended to increase local residents’ say in our region’s future and actually protect individual property rights, the know-nothings carried the day.
This region can’t afford such stupidity. More people are coming here, period. A great many of them will be newly retired Baby Boomers and Latin American immigrants. They’re moving here for a better quality of life, just like many of us once did. How well we prepare for this growth will either further enrich everyone’s lives in Florida or make them all less satisfactory with more sprawl, more traffic and spotty government services. Which future we choose is entirely up to us. Each one of us.