Amendment 4 is likely the most controversial and contested amendment on this year’s list of six proposed constitutional amendments on the Nov. 2 general election ballot. It’s also the amendment most prone to misinformation and exaggerations.
If approved, Amendment 4 would require that counties and cities put to a popular vote only amendments to local government’s so-called comprehensive plans. Voters would get to decide whether to approve large-scale developments or land-use changes.
That does not mean that every zoning and planning change would go on the ballot. It does not mean that small businesses looking to build a store or put in an addition would see any difference in how they go about doing so. It does not mean that taxes would go up anymore than they would go down: those are policy decisions. It does not mean that voters would be required to go to the polls every other week or every other month. They would not go to the polls anymore than they do now: at most, twice a year (for primary and general elections). They would merely see a few additional items (or none at all) related to changes in their local governments’ comprehensive plan.
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Every local government has a comprehensive plan. Those are blueprints for long-term land use and development plans, essentially setting a vision for how a community wants to grow (or not grow). Comprehensive plans are not supposed to be changed very often, otherwise they’d be meaningless. State law gives local governments two windows a year to change their plans. But governments have taken advantage of those windows to stack them with changes, making comprehensive plans essentially meaningless. Developers go through the motions of putting their proposed changes through the required half-dozen public meetings and hearings, then, with few exceptions, get their way.
Rather than regulate the process, the Legislature has loosened it, helping to push Florida into a spree of massive overbuilding that made the state the nation’s poster child of overdevelopment and foreclosures, with Flagler County and Palm Coast at or near the top of the state’s crash list.
The Legislature’s response to the crash: more deregulation. In 2009, the Legislature did away with many requirements that regulated development, including wetland protection, several concurrency requirements that made developers pay for the impact of development, and the involvement of water management district boards—as opposed to the management district’s executive director—in signing off on consumptive use permits for water permits and wetlands destruction permits. Development was already a one-sided affair in Florida. It became more so.
“In other words, legislators have pretty much given free rein to developers to continue building,” Ron Littlepage wrote in the Florida Times-Union, “quality of life and the state’s natural resources be damned, even though there are currently 300,000 homes in Florida sitting empty.” That was in mid-2009. The number of empty houses has grown since. “Normally,” he added, “I favor our representative form of government, but direct democracy on land use changes may be the only way to promote smart growth in Florida. One other thing is pushing me toward favoring Florida Hometown Democracy – the shameful tactics of the opponents, funded by the deep pockets of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and home builders.”
With little to no evidence and plenty of sensational claims, Amendment 4’s opponents claim the amendment would wreck representative democracy, end job creation and raise taxes in leaps and bounds, though many states, which have neither Florida’s permissive approach to development nor its lax regulations, have experienced no such consequences from imposing greater controls on development.
“In this tough economy, the last thing Florida needs is an irresponsible amendment that will cost jobs, raise taxes and make it more expensive to live in our state,” writes the National Federation of Independent Business. The Chamber of Commerce, the Home Builders Association, the real estate industry and the AFL-CIO, the labor union, are all opposed to the amendment. “Defeating Amendment 4 means protecting jobs,” Frank Ortis, president of the Florida State Council of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and a board member with the Florida AFL-CIO, said in July. “As Floridians attempt to recover from the worst recession in a generation, Amendment 4 threatens to drive the jobless rate higher, prolong the recession, and hurt our state’s working families.”
The amendment is also opposed by most local governments, whose commissions and councils are more pro-development than not because developers and chamber of commerce members bankroll many elected representatives’ campaigns, and because they see more development as the equivalent of larger tax bases. They’re right. But it’s also proven that development, especially the type of subdivision development planned in Flagler County, does not pay for itself: According to one report, “a typical Sarasota subdivision, where lot sizes average 75 by 125 feet, and prices range from $150,000 to $230,000, costs the county $1.53 for every $1 of revenue it generates.”
According to another, “Local government officials often believe that one solution to their government’s financial difficulties lies through development, by increasing the property tax base; however, a growing body of empirical evidence shows that while commercial and industrial development can indeed improve the financial well being of a local government, residential development worsens it. While residential development brings with it new tax (and fee) revenue, it also brings demand for local government services. The cost of providing these services exceeds the revenue generated by the new houses in every case studied (American Farmland Trust).”
While development carries on, the quality of services inevitably decreases as long as voters refuse to raise taxes to keep pace with demand for added services.
Amendment 4 is known as the “Hometown Democracy” amendment because it originated with the group by the same name that led a petition campaign to land the proposal on the ballot.
Most newspapers in Florida oppose the amendment.
The St. Petersburg Times: “As a three-year experiment in St. Pete Beach shows, land planning via referendum is a messy, unpredictable business that leads to higher government costs due to litigation and a stalemate when it comes to development. Hometown Democracy backers argue that is preferable to the status quo, where developers too easily get their way with local officials. But replacing an imperfect model with one just as flawed — and just as likely to be exploited by well-financed developers — isn’t the answer.”
The Panama City News Herald: “Amendment 4 isn’t just bad policy that would be enshrined in the state constitution (and thus difficult to reverse). It would undermine our representative democracy. The public elects city and county commissioners to study land-use plans, working with professional staff to understand the pros and cons of proposals and make a decision. The public already has input on these discussions. If the elected officials ignore the public’s will on these matters, the solution is to vote them out of office and elect candidates who share the majority’s views on growth management. According to the St. Augustine Record, St. Johns County voters have done just that recently, electing candidates who lean toward less development.”
While institutions are opposed to the amendment, individuals voices, even within the same newspapers that oppose it, are not. Carl Hiaasen’s is among those stronger voices: “As things stand now, development interests can thwart opposition to projects by simply buying off the politicians whose votes are needed to make it happen. […] This cynical charade has been going on since the beginning of statehood. It’s the reason so many Florida cities look like they were planned by chimpanzees on LSD. It’s also the reason we now have an estimated 300,000 homes and condos sitting vacant statewide, while leading the nation in foreclosures as well as mortgage fraud. The term “growth management” is a joke. […] [I]t’s hard to imagine a system for managing growth that could possibly be more dishonest, or deaf to the public interest, than what we have now. Nobody with half a brain believes that development pays for itself. Study after study shows that residents are the ones who pay big-time for sprawl, which is why taxes are so brutal in Florida’s most densely populated counties. So is the cost of living. Clogged highways, overcrowded schools and jails, water shortages — we pay for all of it.
Opponents claim that Amendment 4 will actually raise taxes, one of many straight-faced lies that will saturate the airwaves between now and election day. This is well-financed desperation. […] Here’s the killer: Many of the companies bankrolling the ad campaign against Amendment 4 are recipients of a congressional bailout, in the form of humongous tax refunds earlier this year. […] So, when you see all those dire-sounding, fright-filled TV commercials, remember whose paying for them. You are. These guys are using your money to keep your voice, and your vote, out of the neighborhood planning process. Think about that when you’re standing in the voting booth on Nov 2.”
Amendment 4 Ballot Language:
Establishes that before a local government may adopt a new comprehensive land use plan, or amend a comprehensive land use plan, the proposed plan or amendment shall be subject to vote of the electors of the local government by referendum, following preparation by the local planning agency, consideration by the governing body and notice. Provides definitions.
Financial Impact Statement:
The amendment’s impact on local government expenditures cannot be estimated precisely. Local governments will incur additional costs due to the requirement to conduct referenda in order to adopt comprehensive plans or amendments thereto. The amount of such costs depends upon the frequency, timing and method of the referenda, and includes the costs of ballot preparation, election administration, and associated expenses. The impact on state government expenditures will be insignificant.