Miami conclave to help map the next 50 years for Southeast Florida

On a Google map, the long stretch of Florida coastline from deep South Miami-Dade County to Sebastian Inlet appears a seamless mass of urban development jammed between a thin border of sand on one side and wetlands and farmland on the other.

But zoom in and it’s soon sliced up by lines both real and imaginary: roadways, highways, railways, waterways and the boundaries of numerous, and often overlapping, governmental jurisdictions.

Now this vast area, at once connected and disconnected, is the subject of one of the most ambitious planning efforts ever undertaken in Florida. Called Seven50, it aims to chart a coordinated, integrated future for the development of Southeast Florida’s seven counties for a couple of generations, through the year 2060.

On Thursday, the big moveable feast of thinkers, planners, economists, government officials and business leaders that is Seven50 convened in downtown Miami for the effort’s second public summit since its launch in Delray Beach last June.

The seven counties of southeast Florida, already more populated than 35 states, will cram 3 million people into the region in the next 50 years, planners told several hundred attendees Thursday morning.

But transportation networks, public infrastructure and land use rules that encourage sprawl mean the region could face gridlock, environmental degradation, and dropping quality of life if current policies continue, they said.

The free public meeting is to take all day.

It may sound like “wonky stuff,’’ said Seven50 lead consultant Victor Dover, a Coral Gables-based planner. But he said Seven50’s scores of participants are convinced that agreeing to coordinated plans across jurisdictional lines is critical if the region is to prosper and meet a long list of common challenges. They range from transportation logjams to the prospect of rising seas and U.S. and international competitors trying to grab our share of international investment, tourism, cargo and trade.

And that competition is serious and well-organized, Dover said. In Texas, for instance, 13 counties and 100 cities between Houston and Galveston have banded together in a similar planning alliance, and so have cities and states along the Great Lakes.

The advantage Southeast Florida has, Seven50 planners say, is that old real-estate cliché: location, location, location.

But the region risks throwing its advantage away unless it better links up its airports and seaports, installs more and better-connected mass transit, and develops strategies to improve education and retain and attract the kind of skilled, educated young people considered key to economic prosperity in today’s economy.

“Planning at this scale is profoundly American, from Jefferson to the creation of Washington, D.C., and if we don’t do it, we’re going to get blown away by the competition,’’ said Andres Duany, a renowned Miami-based planner who will give the keynote address at the downtown gathering. “They’re gunning for us.’’

The sessions at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus are designed to gather public input and share a still-in-development snapshot of the region as planners build what they describe as a massive data warehouse covering everything from demographics to housing, economics and transportation networks. Key discussion areas will be transportation, education and the daunting implications of climate change.

Because Southeast Florida will be among the first regions to experience rising sea levels, across-the-board planning on how to adapt will be essential. That could include difficult options like steering investment for new public infrastructure away from vulnerable areas, or protecting the region’s underground water supply from saltwater intrusion by raising freshwater levels in drainage canals, which could produce more seasonal flooding in some areas.

Some 200 public agencies, advocates, business groups and academic institutions, including the region’s principal universities, have signed up for the effort. Any resulting plans are purely voluntary, and no town or agency is obligated to adopt any ideas it doesn’t like, planners stress.

Still, the process hit a roadblock in the northernmost county, Indian River. The county commission and the Vero Beach City Council voted to drop out after tea party-linked activists raised a public ruckus over their participation. The activists contend Seven50 is part of Agenda 21, a 20-year-old, nonbinding United Nations resolution that called for environmentally sustainable urban development, which they describe as a conspiracy to evict people from their homes and force them into dense urban housing.

Seven50 planners had to post a response on their website explaining they intend no such thing. Since then, the Stuart City Council, in Martin County, has voted to join Seven50. Other Indian River agencies remain as participants.

The two-year planning effort, led by a consortium established by the South Florida Regional Planning Council and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, is funded by a $4.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The federal agency is encouraging local governments to engage in long-range planning under the sustainability label, which covers a range of strategies to foster development of pedestrian-friendly urban zones that put jobs close to homes and save energy by providing alternatives to auto transportation.