The watchdog organization 1000 Friends of Florida is focused on environmental conservation and smart growth. The group formed in 1986 when, if you ask the agency’s outreach director and Florida native Haley Busch, the state had its act a little more together.
“That’s when Florida really did a good job with statewide growth management and had a whole department devoted to it,” Busch said.
That apparatus was the Department of Community Affairs, which former Gov. Rick Scott dismantled in 2011 and replaced with a different arm of state government.
“The agency responsible now, the newly formed Department of Economic Opportunity, is responsible for overseeing big land-use changes,” Jane West of 1000 Friends said. “But they don’t have the authority. That’s been taken away, so it’s a free-for-all.”
West is the 1000 Friends of Florida policy and planning director. As an attorney, her expertise is Florida’s statutes. But as part of a smart-growth-watchdog organization, her major concern is sprawl.
Municipalities have only a select few mechanisms they can use to push back on growth, she said. One option is impact fees, which West argued are incredibly underutilized.
“Sprawl is expensive, and so impact fees are meant to lessen the damage to local government coffers as a result of that developer’s decision,” she said. “That decision is profit-motivated, right, because raw, undeveloped land is a fairly cheap commodity in Florida, all things considered.”
There’s a rub, though, she said. A new law passed in the Florida Legislature in 2020 capped the rates and speeds at which local governments can increase impact fees. Increases can’t exceed 12.5 percent in one year, or 50 percent over four years.
“That doesn’t even come close to covering what the infrastructure costs are going to be,” West said.
One project of 1000 Friends of Florida is the 2070 Plan, a series of maps and potential futures for Florida, comparing the outcomes if the state stays on its current path of growth, or changes course.
Sticking with the status quo, Busch said, wouldn’t be pretty.
“It’s kind of scary, especially with regard to water supply,” she said.
Surging growth is not unique to Volusia County.
“It’s like the gloves came off, and it’s steamrolling across the state. I get calls from citizen groups from Walton County to Washington County to Sarasota, you name it,” West said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
So what can concerned citizens do?
You have to build relationships with decision-makers and push for development and growth to be done right, West said.
“Show up to the meeting, be informed, educated, so that you know the history of what you’re talking about, especially in your specific community,” she said. “Secondly, it’s to have these conversations with your neighbors, at your church, in your clubs, whatever you’re involved with.”
They may not be the most interesting conversations, Busch said, but nobody knows your neighborhood better than you. Because, at the end of the day, people love Florida, and people will keep moving here.
“Unless you truly become some sort of authoritarian state, you can’t tell people they can’t move to Florida,” Busch said. “It’s been our history for almost 200 years now where people have been moving to this state. We’ve got great quality of life, no income tax, best climate.”
She continued, “We’ve got to prepare, we’ve got to build bridges, work with people, and work with developers; work with the real estate community and the Chambers of Commerce. Because at the crux of it is our beaches, our air quality, our quality of life, which is so closely tied to our natural resources. That’s the reason these folks come to Florida.”