The Volusia County Council’s April 12 workshop on growth management confronted challenges so huge, and touched on so many subjects, that the county’s leaders agreed they could not cover it all in a single conference.
The County Council also decided to revive the Green Ribbon Panel, an advisory group of environmental officials who may help draft and shape policies. The short-lived Green Ribbon Panel was first formed in 2008, and it ceased work in 2009.
“I’m really in favor of the Green Ribbon Panel,” Council Member Billie Wheeler said. “I think we need getting real experts in there.”
There was information overload, as the county’s professional planners and speakers used a 94-slide PowerPoint presentation, followed by a 32-slide PowerPoint from 1000 Friends of Florida. The smorgasbord of topics included:
The history of growth-management planning
Efforts to plan for increases in the population of the Sunshine State and Volusia County are at least 50 years old, as explained by county Growth and Resource Management Director Clay Ervin.
“The State of Florida has had growth management since 1972,” he said, noting that was also the same year Volusia adopted new subdivision regulations.
Perhaps Florida’s best-known growth-management law was enacted in 1985. The Legislature mandated concurrency, meaning local governments were required to provide and pay for roads, schools and parks in those areas into which people were moving or were likely to move. That is, the cities and counties were bound to make certain the infrastructure would be there as it was needed to prevent gridlock on the roads and overcrowding of schools.
Impact fees, up-front charges on new development, were imposed to provide a revenue stream for the new capital improvements — but not for fixing old infrastructure already strained before the new arrivals are here.
“New development is responsible to pay for their impacts,” County Chair Jeff Brower said. “They can’t be forced to pay for the backlog.”
Volusia County imposed its first impact fees for roads in 1986. Impact fees for schools and parks were added in 1992.
In more recent years, the cities have also added their own impact fees, which likewise are added to the cost of buying a new home or business building.
Despite the addition of impact fees, officials complain the charges are insufficient. Growth, the critics say, does not pay for itself, resulting in escalations of taxes, longer time motorists are stuck in traffic, and the numbers of “portable” classrooms at new schools.
The Florida Legislature lifted the very strict requirement for concurrency in 2011, with the passage of the Community Planning Act. Under this statute, concurrency may be accomplished in part with payments known as “proportionate share” from developers, in addition to impact fees.
The spread of cities and suburbs
“I’m concerned about urban sprawl,” Pete Glover said.
Though he lives in Ormond Beach, Glover said he owns land in Barberville, and he wants the area to remain rural.
Pressures to pave over the Volusia countryside, Ervin said, are coming partly because of the outward spread of the Orlando metroplex to the south and the growth around Jacksonville to the north. Metro Jacksonville is now spreading to St. Johns and Flagler counties.
“We’re at the apex of I-4 and I-95,” Ervin noted.
Preserving the natural environment
In this instance, Volusia County stands out for its pioneering efforts to save unspoiled lands that are critical to the watershed, as well as for wildlife habitat.
“You guys were the first in the nation to approve a conservation bond issue,” Jane West, an attorney with 1000 Friends of Florida, reminded the County Council and the audience.
For a county as large as the state of Rhode Island, large chunks of the land remain untouchable by urban intrusion. Volusia County has a total of 808,385 acres, Ervin said.
“We have approximately 274,000 acres in conservation,” he added, “Roughly 25 to 30 percent of our land is in conservation.”
Much of that land forms the Volusia Conservation Corridor, a sort of north-to-south spine of wilderness in the middle of the county. The corridor includes some state-owned forest.
Another name for the corridor is the Environmental Core Overlay. Yet another term used to describe the connected conservation tracts is the Palmetto Curtain, which symbolizes the real or perceived divide between East and West Volusia in terms of politics and culture.
The drive to shield environmentally sensitive land from the advance of urban encroachment began in 1986, when a majority of Volusia voters approved a county charter amendment to levy a 1/4-mill property tax to buy prime tracts.
If the county did not buy those choice chunks of woodlands and meadows, developers were ready to do so, and to transform them into neighborhoods, apartment complexes, shopping centers or office buildings.
The 1986 land-saving program was followed in 2000 with the Volusia Forever program. Volusia Forever, which was reauthorized in 2020 for another 20 years, is funded by a 1/5-mill, or 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. Like its predecessor, Volusia Forever was also a voter-approved amendment to the county’s home-rule charter.
The natural environment includes wetlands
In past times, wetlands were considered little more than nuisances, mosquito farms that need to be drained and packed with fill dirt. Wetlands, however, are vital to ecosystems and groundwater supplies. To protect the wetlands, there are a host of federal, state and local laws.
Four federal agencies claim jurisdiction over wetlands: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
At the state level, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the St. Johns River Water Management District enforce their regulations.
Volusia County, for its part, recently increased the setback from 150 to 250 feet between excavations and wetlands.
County officials are unsure exactly how much of the county is covered with water, and finding out would be a mighty task.
“It really would take an army of people visiting every site, and it would require permission from property owners,” Environmental Management Director Ginger Adair said.
Transportation remains a major concern in connection with efforts to control growth, especially for those facing traffic jams with long delays between signalized intersections, along with gasoline prices that may continue to exceed $4 per gallon.
“We have roads that were built, and they weren’t maintained,” county planner Carol McFarlane said.
Meanwhile, Melissa Lammers, of Ormond-by-the-Sea, questioned the lack of attention to other forms of getting around.
“Why aren’t we planning for multiple transportation modes?” she asked.
There was, in fact, little mention during the growth-management session of SunRail, Votran or the county’s network of hiking and biking trails.
As for roads, McFarlane noted planning for some roads that simply don’t exist.
“In Volusia County, we have a lot of paper plats. There are no roads,” she said.
Land-use and zoning laws
The local comprehensive plans, required by the state, set the land uses for properties within their jurisdiction. Land use and zoning are not the same.
Under the law, land use is the general category of a piece of property. It may be residential, commercial, industrial or rural, for example.
The zoning refers to the specific uses allowed on a piece of property. The zoning must be consistent with the land use. For example, a retail store or a restaurant may not be allowed on property with a residential or agricultural land use. If a business is to be developed on a noncommercial site, or housing on an agricultural site, the land use must be changed.
A key portion of a local growth-management plan is the future land-use map, sometimes referred to as FLUM.
Once the comprehensive plan is adopted by the city or county elected governing body, and endorsed by the state, it is the law of the land — literally. It sets the direction of development, and it mandates that future development must be compatible with the adjoining land uses and consistent with surrounding ones.
In addition, land uses must be such that there is a transition between, for example, low-intensity residential development and a highly active retail commercial district.
Any change of a land use requires an ordinance to be adopted, with a public hearing before the governing body votes on the measure.
Usually, two votes are required (first reading and second reading), and the proposed change of land use must be approved by the Volusia Growth Management Commission and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Formerly, the Florida Department of Community Affairs was the agency that approved all local comprehensive plans, but that was changed in 2011.
Building codes and permitting
As Florida grows and more homes and businesses are built to house and serve the new arrivals, county officials say safety must be built into all structures.
That means changes and stricter regulations in construction.
“The biggest thing is to protect our citizens,” county Building and Zoning Director Kerry Leuzinger said.
Volusia County follows the Florida Building Code, which he described as “a uniform statewide building code.” The standards and regulations of the Florida Building Code are supposed to avert the loss of life and property that occurred when Hurricane Andrew laid waste to South Florida in 1992, for example.
“This is what we have to enforce. This is what the state says you will adopt,” Leuzinger said.
“If we do our job, nothing happens,” he added.
Leuzinger referred to the deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium complex in Surfside last year as an example of why government must regulate the design and construction of buildings.
The June 24, 2021, disaster resulted in 99 deaths, and a Miami law firm involved in the litigation related to the collapse issued a statement saying the condominium was “improperly designed, poorly constructed.”
Amid the attention and accolades given to first responders, Leuzinger said his agency acts to head off life-threatening situations.
“A big part of our job is saving lives,” he added. “We are the first preventers.”
There were other issues raised in the course of the conference, such as:
— Tree protection
— Affordable housing
— Sea-level rise
— Low-impact development and green infrastructure
Before ending the workshop, County Attorney Michael Dyer suggested, and the council agreed, that the county should send a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis urging him to veto Senate Bill 620.
That measure, if it becomes law, would allow businesses that have operated for at least three years to sue counties or cities if they pass ordinances that cause the loss of 15 percent or more of a company’s profits.
So what came from the long session on growth?
“Ginger [Adair] is going to have a Green Ribbon Panel,” Brower said. “At the next County Council meeting, and every one after that, they’re going to bring us proposals. County Attorney Mike Dyer will bring in a letter asking the governor to reject SB 620.”
Brower added the bill in question, if enacted, would be another blow to home rule.
“The state is doing their best to keep us from managing growth,” he said.
The varied and sundry issues may be a mosaic or a puzzle. Making the pieces fit is a must if the decision makers are to begin controlling the county’s growth and preserving the things — including the natural resources, recreational options, scenic beauty and economic opportunity — that have attracted waves of new settlers since World War II.