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Lawmakers want to make it even easier to develop in Florida

Deadwood, S.D., is hardly anyone’s idea of a densely populated area.

Yet Florida lawmakers might eliminate state oversight of major projects in areas only slightly more congested than the legendary ghost town. Most alarming for smart growth advocates and environmentalists is that the bill eliminates a requirement that development be steered into areas with existing roads, schools and utilities.

Under SB 372, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, large projects would no longer be reviewed by state officials if proposed for counties with a population of more than 300,000. The exemption is already in place for eight counties with populations of 900,000 or more — including Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Pinellas. The bill would add seven more, including Pasco, Sarasota and Galvano’s home county of Manatee.

The bill renders a crucial concept in growth management — density — meaningless. Under the bill, exempt areas would have to hold only 400 people per square mile. Currently, density in Florida is defined as 1,000 people per square mile.

By comparison, Manhattan has 170,000 people per square mile, Tampa has 2,960, Gainesville 1,993, and Deadwood, a town known largely for tumbleweeds, 332.

“It’s absurd to refer to that as ‘dense,’ ” said David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club Florida. “That comes to about one house per three square acres. How can anyone possibly call that dense?”

Such qualms didn’t register with the Senate’s appropriations committee on transportation and economic development, which passed the measure on Wednesday. With session only two weeks away, the bill already has cleared two committees, with two remaining. Its companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, awaits its first House committee vote.

Density is no small concern when it comes to land planning. The more compact and centralized development is, the more public money that’s saved in building and maintaining the roads, pipes, wires and schools that make it possible. If this support network sprawls, it costs more to maintain and navigate. Commuting times go up. Traffic piles up.

“It makes life more expensive for the people who live there, and they have to use gas to get a gallon of milk,” Cullen said. “You’re also covering up more land with impermeable surface and fragmenting more animal habitat.”

Galvano said that the bill, which he says would save developers time and money spent on project review, eliminates an outdated requirement. In 1972, lawmakers required an added layer of review for projects that were so big they affected more than one county. These projects, called “developments of regional impact,” couldn’t move forward until state planners agreed that its traffic, water, sewer, wastewater, school and other needs could be compatible with the overall region.

That’s no longer needed, Galvano argues, because counties are better equipped to do the review themselves.

“It recognizes that counties today have a much greater level of sophistication and ability to deal with developments than they did back in 1972,” Galvano said.

After the vote, Galvano said his sponsoring the measure had nothing to do with a massive project in his district called Long Bar Pointe. He said he hasn’t discussed the bill with its developers, including the politically influential Carlos Beruff, who has contributed at least $3,000 to Galvano’s reelection campaign this year and is the chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Last year, Manatee County commissioners made things more difficult for that project, which includes a convention center and hotel on Sarasota Bay. They moved the boundaries of a so-called “urban service area,’’ making it harder to develop. Galvano’s bill would eliminate urban service areas.

The legislation comes just as home building is picking in a state that depends on it. If enacted into law, it would eliminate more of the few regulatory barriers that still exist for developers. Its success Wednesday seemed assured before the vote.

While two environmental groups and the Florida Association of Counties spoke to object to parts of the bill, the groups pushing for the bill, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, and the Association of Florida Community Developers, waived their time to speak in support.