Florida's Amendment 4 Puts Land-Use Issues on the Ballot

Is this the perfect year for Florida voters to constrain development?
by | October 2010
Building being constructed
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The most controversial vote Floridians cast this fall may not be for governor or senator, but rather for Amendment 4, a ballot initiative dealing with the normally esoteric issue of local land-use plans.

Amendment 4’s goal is to democratize Florida’s decisions on development. The constitutional amendment would require a majority vote in a public referendum before a local government could alter a comprehensive land-use plan.

Land-use planning isn’t usually a hot-button state political issue, but Amendment 4 comes with a provocative subtext. Florida Hometown Democracy, a citizens’ group that’s pushing the amendment, argues that many local governments routinely have allowed developers to do what they pleased, irrespective of the effects on Floridians’ quality of life. The ballot initiative is an effort to check what the group sees as out-of-control growth.

Critics see the Florida Hometown Democracy movement as a threat to the new development that has driven the state’s economy for years. State lawmakers were so strongly opposed to the amendment that they were willing to permanently change the rules for constitutional amendments to thwart it. In 2006, legislators referred a measure to the ballot to require constitutional amendments to receive 60 percent of the vote to pass, rather than a simple majority. Voters approved the change -- with 58 percent of the vote. Others challenges have been of the more mundane legal variety. “It’s been a saga, to say the least,” says Lesley Blackner, president of Florida Hometown Democracy, who has been pushing the idea since 2003. “We’ve been to the Florida Supreme Court seven times, which is a lot.”

Why the concerns? Critics say Amendment 4 would leave voters in charge of complex, technical decisions, with special interests dominating the elections and subsequent legal battles. “It threatens to inject new layers of costs, uncertainty and delay into an already complicated process,” says Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, a group fighting the amendment. “This is an economic catastrophe in the making.”

Houck has an exceptionally broad coalition on his side, including many business groups, labor groups, developers, planners, local governments and most of the key newspaper editorial boards in the state. In the face of that opposition, the best hope for Hometown Democracy’s cause is that the measure’s long-delayed appearance on the ballot actually works to its advantage. Amendment 4 ended up on the ballot in a year when foreclosures have wrecked developers’ reputations and voters are angry at the people in power. The amendment is counting on a populist uprising. “Government isn’t working well at any level in the United States anymore,” Blackner says. “Certainly, Amendment 4 is a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with how government does its job.”

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer | mailbox@governing.com