Sprawl No More

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 19 No. 4, "Government That Works." Find more from that issue here.

Look at any map of southeast Florida and you’ll see cities: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach. What’s not so obvious is that the tiny marks on the paper are separate only in name. In reality, south Florida is one vast urban area, a sprawling “city” that has been on an inexorable march northward since the 1960s.

Now, that pattern of urban advancement is beginning to repeat itself in other areas of the state, most notably in the Gulf Coast counties surrounding Tampa and St. Petersburg. But this time, residents are armed with a state law that gives them a real opportunity to make lasting decisions about the physical shape of their communities.

Known as the Growth Management Act, the 1985 legislation gives citizens a voice in how and where their communities build new housing developments, office buildings, and shopping malls. For the first time, what used to be purely private business decisions are now in the hands of the entire community.

The law requires every city and county to submit a “comprehensive plan” outlining where and how growth will occur. The plans must meet a stringent set of criteria: They must be based on fact, they must link the kind and amount of development communities will allow to estimates of future population growth, they must show how growth will be financed, and they must ensure that facilities that will be used by development — things like roads, sewers, and water— are in place when they are needed.

But what most sets the growth management law apart from efforts in other states is the opportunity it gives citizens to participate in the planning process. Unlike previous legislation, communities are required to provide citizens ample opportunity to comment on the plans before they are finalized. Even more important, citizens have legal standing to challenge the plans during and after the state approval process.

“Citizens have an unprecedented ability to hold local governments accountable for the decisions they make about development,” says Patricia McKay, planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida, a statewide growth-management advocacy group.

The new process has generated tremendous support during the past five years from both the public and private sectors. For the first time, supporters say, Floridians are beginning to grapple with the real costs of growth — financial, environmental, and aesthetic.

The law came just in time for Martin County, a mostly rural and suburban area just north of Palm Beach. While Martin has seen its own share of growth during the past 10 years, its pace could not compare with that of its neighbors to the south. Residents had watched with growing concern as shopping centers and multi-lane highways spread northward, crowding the county line. Growth was knocking at the door when the state passed the new law.

“The growth management act really mobilized the community,” says McKay. “The people needed a framework to help direct their very strong desire to manage growth in the community. The 1985 act gave them that.”

Hundreds of Martin County residents participated in the planning process. When the plan was approved without some of the provisions they felt were important, citizens challenged the plan and won increased protection for the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River.

They even put together a special publication, the Martin County Growth Management News, to make sure everyone in the community understood the comprehensive planning process.

When local elections were held in the fall of 1990, Martin County affirmed its support of the growth management process by electing virtually every candidate — incumbent or newcomer — who supported growth management.

Similar victories have been repeated throughout the state. Citizens in Crystal River fought for — and won — increased protection for the endangered manatee. The residents of Cross Creek, a tiny town in central Florida that was the home of The Yearling author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, passed a local ordinance limiting new development to protect the natural resources and character of the land surrounding their historic community. Citizens in Lee County on the lower west coast used their comprehensive plan to increase access to local beaches.

In many communities, citizen advisory councils have played an integral role in writing the initial plans. And as the process continues, citizens are looking for a broader role in amending the plans and challenging individual developments.

“Growth management is working in Florida,” says McKay. “From what we have seen in our work with community groups around the state, Floridians want it, need it, and are not going to let go of it.”