Land-use attorney Mark Watts takes a very long view of the onslaught of growth and development happening today in West Volusia.
Watts — the developers’ attorney for some of the biggest and most controversial local projects over the past three years — followed in his father’s footsteps in this area of the legal profession. And his father shared with his son the wisdom of a fourth-generation Floridian.
In his view, Watts said, the current flurry of housing projects is actually simply the response of a free market to pent-up demand.
That demand, and a housing shortage, were created largely by a recessionary building bust from 2008 through 2012, along with the enduring popularity of Florida in general, and West Volusia in particular.
“Like it or not, Florida is a growth state,” Watts said.
Before this current surge, Watts noted, the last big contributions to the housing inventory — Victoria Park, Saddlebrook and Bent Oaks, for example — occurred in the late 1990s.
“Since that time, you haven’t seen really big projects come through and be approved,” Watts said. “For 20 years, we’ve been consuming the inventory.”
Watts hasn’t charted it, but is betting the DeLand area’s current population growth rate doesn’t deviate much from the growth in Central Florida overall.
The cause of that attraction can be traced back to a time when promoters of Florida were trying to coax people to move to a place that offered plenty of mosquitoes, ubiquitous swamps and the not-too-infrequent hurricanes.
They figured low taxes would help, and the tax structure hasn’t changed much since. Florida ranks 45th out of 50 states in terms of the tax burden on individuals.
“At a base level, we live in a state that has a tax structure that’s designed to attract people,” Watts said.
This is a double-edged sword, too, because those low tax rates help create infrastructure deficits that growth exacerbates — and Florida’s new growth cannot be held responsible for existing deficits under the state’s constitution.
It’s not a game of musical chairs, where the last guy left standing can be held responsible for fixing the bridge, Watts said.
“Historically, for decades and decades, we have not funded our infrastructure the way we should have,” he said. “There’s a backlog, and the new development can’t legally be held responsible for that backlog.”
The 1985 Growth Management Act gave Florida governments a way to cope, called concurrency.
This state law allowed development proposals to be stalled or denied if there weren’t adequate roads, bridges, schools, water and sewage facilities, and so on, to accommodate them.
But a pro-growth tide washed in, and the Growth Management Act has been dismantled.
“The way the Legislature has governed since 2011 or so, the Legislature has taken away a lot of the provisions of the Growth Management Act,” Watts said. “That really took away a lot of the tools available to local government.”
One tool that remains is called “proportionate share,” which requires new developments to pay a share of the cost of infrastructure, like roads, that those projects will make necessary — but none of the backlog.
There are some bright spots. One, Watts said, is that very few of the projects his firm is involved in request a change to the local comprehensive plan.
“So we’re not changing what the community has already adopted and has had on the books for years,” he said.
Another bright spot is the involvement of local people.
“You have investors coming in from the outside, and you have people who are very invested in the community — including us,” Watts said, adding, “The vast majority of our projects are ones where we know the neighbors.”
The Southridge or Sandhill Golf Course development proposal, which has morphed over several months based on input and pressure from the community, is one example of how working together can shape — if not slow or stop — growth.
“The process, I think, has resulted in a whole lot of improvements to that plan,” Watts said. “We’ve tried to take into account all the things we’ve heard from the community.”
The community will get a look at the latest plan for the old golf course when the City Commission takes it up again at a meeting in late October or early November, Watts said.