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A CHAT WITH TOM PELHAM
CHAT WITH TOM PELHAM

THOMAS G. PELHAM figures to be a good choice to be Florida's top growth planner—again. From 1987 to 1991, Pelham worked for Gov. Bob Martinez's as head of the state's chief planning agency, the Department of Community Affairs. Last year, when Gov. Charlie Crist reappointed Pelham to his old post, the move was applauded by sprawl-watchers statewide.

A land-use attorney who has covered the field both inside and outside Florida government for nearly four decades, Pelham has been characterized as the state's most vocal critic of its own growth management policies. In a story in Florida Trend last year, Pelham called the 1985 Growth Management Act "a mess" that is "badly in need of an overhaul."

Appropriately enough, his words conveyed a sense of personal loss. After helping blow life into the law, in his interim private-sector years Pelham has watched the nation's most ambitious growth management law become a joke. For all its good intentions, the law—which in fairness never got the financial traction it needed from the get-go—got crushed beneath an onslaught of growth unprecedented in the U.S. From 1985 to 2000, Florida's population jumped 40 percent, from 11.7 million to 16.4 million, a national record.

In 2008, Pelham faces his second try to get the old 1985 act substantially rewritten; reportedly, his first efforts back in his old job largely went by the boards in 2007 thanks to fierce lobbying efforts by developers and road builders happy with the status quo. Pelham knows there's still broad public support for better growth management laws in Florida—as a nascent grassroots effort to change the state constitution underscores.

Called Florida Hometown Democracy, the group seeks an amendment that would require all land-use decisions, no matter how trivial, to be decided by voters. Although he derides the idea as hopelessly unworkable, Pelham said he nonetheless sees it as indicative of "growing citizen dissatisfaction with the way we're dealing with growth and development issues."

Admirers say Pelham's native-son pedigree—he was born and raised in the Panhandle's historically rural Holmes County (pop: 19,464)—only add to his credentials as Florida's chief land-use planner. Pelham grew up seeing development transform miles of tranquil Gulf beaches in nearby Panama City into an international tourist destination studded with high-rise hotels, condos, chic bistros and tacky amusement parks.

Pelham holds two degrees from Florida State—a B.A. in government ('65) and a law degree ('71). He taught land-use planning and growth management courses as an adjunct professor of law at FSU from 1981 until his return to government service in 2007. In December, he sat for a short chat with Research in Review. —F.S.

RinR: So, is your primary aim a complete rewrite of the 1985 Growth Management Act?

Pelham: I wouldn't say a total rewrite but a really extensive overhaul of the statute. It's gotten to the point now that I think the act inspires contempt and not respect. It's very difficult to use. Practitioners talk about how difficult it is to deal with this statute. So it needs a good makeover, streamlining and cleaning up. For years, we've pretended that we have a growth management process and that it is taking care of our problems, when in fact it hasn't been consistently implemented or enforced. Hopefully, we've learned something.

RinR: If the Legislature could pass only a single law aimed at fixing the act, what should that be?

Pelham: Well, the process by which local growth plans are amended is broken. Amendments have become the rule rather than the exception. In some years as many as 10,000 or more local plan amendments are adopted (statewide), giving citizens the impression that the plans are meaningless—and that's certainly understandable. This situation has undermined public confidence in our whole growth management system. So, we're asking the Legislature to enact a Citizens' Planning Bill of Rights to bring some discipline and limitations to the plan amendment process and to enhance the ability of citizens to participate in the process. We've got to restore some respect (to the law).

RinR: But even if you get an improved law, what's it going to take to enforce it better than the old law was?

Pelham: It's going to take constant, steady attention to it, political will and leadership, someone who is interested in making this system work. And it has to work both at the state and the regional and the local levels. It's very difficult to get all those layers of government headed down the same road, singing off the same songbook. Executive leadership and legislative leadership at all levels are varied. It hasn't been constant, so the program tends to drift. Enforcement has been very problematic. People criticize the act but it doesn't matter what the words on the paper say if they're not implemented and enforced. And so priorities change—one group of leaders come in, they have different priorities and another group comes in and they have still different priorities. And I don't think that we have been very consistent over the 20-year period we've been trying to make this work.

RinR: How does our current governor's interest in growth management stack up with his predecessors, in your view?

Pelham: Governor Crist is a strong supporter of our growth management efforts. He recognizes that growth is desirable, but he also believes that we need smart, sustainable growth if Florida is to remain an attractive and economically vibrant state. He encourages us to make the right decisions for the people of Florida, and he leads by example. In his first year as governor, he has boldly tackled energy and climate change issues, which if not addressed, can adversely affect Florida's future.

RinR: In 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush created the Florida Commission on Growth Management ostensibly to improve the state's growth management system. What did this commission accomplish?

Pelham: The Commission made many recommendations, some were very controversial, and only a few of them have been enacted into law. The most notable was the Legislature's adoption in 2005 of the Commission's recommendation that schools be made subject to the concurrency requirement. That means that local governments cannot approve new residential development unless adequate school capacity is available or provided for.

RinR: In the (FSU) book, you described how the concurrency policy wasn't funded very well—if at all—from the start, and that this was a real problem from the get-go. But critics say concurrency just contributes to urban sprawl.

Pelham: The way we've implemented it has I think contributed greatly to sprawl. On the one hand our policies say that we want to encourage development in our major urban areas, our urban centers. But the way in which transportation concurrency has been implemented is to create a huge obstacle to development in the very areas where we say we want development and to drive it out to where land's cheaper, where there's more road capacity, and you don't have to pay as much for transportation improvements. So we've been working at cross purposes.

RinR: As I understand it, with most of the state's coast already built up, the next development front in Florida is the state's rural interior.

Pelham: Exactly right. In Florida's heartland, which I now call the state's last frontier now that the Panhandle has been discovered in a big way, you have the heart of Florida's agricultural industry, a lot of small, rural counties that are under enormous pressure. Right now---today---we have roughly two million acres of land that are under proposal of some kind or other to convert them to urban development. Our department gets proposals for large new developments and even new cities in these areas, small, rural counties all the time-it's no exaggeration to say we get one every month. For example, in Okeechobee County we got in a proposal for a new city that is larger substantially than anything that exists in Okeechobee County today. We have someone who in Osceola County is talking of a new city with 100,000 residential units and a population of 250,000 people. And that's with an economic downturn.

RinR: Have you ever thought about if we had not had the 1985 growth management act and its subsequent amendments, how would things be today? Would things be better, worse, what?

Pelham: It would be far worse in my view. The process we've had is not perfect. It hasn't delivered everything many people would have hoped that it would. But if you look at the way development occurred in Florida in the decades before we got this legislation, you can see the clear differences. I think definitely the quality of much of our development is better than it would have been (without the law). Sure, we still have sprawl, yes, but in my view we'd have had even more without it.

RinR: What are the overriding trends right now as far as growth in the state?

Pelham: I think that a significant trend is (the phenomenon of) people moving from south Florida up to middle Florida, Ocala area or even into north Florida or even out of the state into Georgia and North Carolina. That's a significant demographic trend in the state. And it is part of the reason for the increasing pressure we're seeing on our rural areas. This is due in part to the problems we've encountered on the coast—hurricanes, insurance problems, rising property taxes—which are felt even more heavily on the coastal areas than inland. So I think that's pushing population inward and northward.

RinR: We've certainly made national news with our property tax situation, our insurance debacle, our water crisis, rising energy costs, infrastructure problems, congested highways, all these things. And still people are flocking here. Your thoughts?

Pelham: Well, Florida offers some things that people like and they can't get in very many other places. Climate. Close water. A cheaper way of living, although I think that's beginning to change too. I think Florida's becoming a more expensive place to live. But none of this has stopped our population growth, as you're pointing out. But it is indicating some trends that, if they continue, might become a real problem for us. Cost of living in a growing number of places is becoming very unaffordable except for wealthier people. Because of the way we have or have not financed growth, use of impact fees is becoming greater and greater and they're going up, up and up. All of that gets passed on to consumers, added to the cost of housing. Affordable housing is one of our most pressing issues today.

RinR: What are people telling you about the water crisis in Florida?

Pelham: The south Florida water management district tells us that they are greatly concerned about the declining supply of water in south Florida. They've been issuing very strong objections to plan amendments to increase development on the basis of lack of water. So I think it's becoming a very, very critical problem in the southern part of our state, perhaps in the Tampa Bay area on down. Actually, the technical people say that we can generate or create new water supplies but it's going to be much more expensive. Most people are saying that we probably can come up with enough water but it's going to be more expensive, possibly a lot more.

RinR: Is it fair to say you're a fan of New Urbanism? If so, why?

Pelham: Yes. It accomplishes a lot of things that the growth management act is trying to accomplish. It's a way to create a more livable community, with less dependence on the automobile. And a lot of it is all about cars. Compact urban development can internalize traffic and create a mixed use community that affords people opportunities to live and work and recreate in one place without having to jump into a car and drive everywhere. This is really key to making growth management work.

RinR: So, in your view is dealing with transportation the biggest challenge the state faces during the next, say, 20 years?

Pelham: I believe transportation is the number one challenge we face. Water supply is a big challenge, too. Both are essential for sustainable growth. But we can and will develop new water supplies, even if water will become increasingly more expensive as I've said. But the biggest problem, in my view, is what we're going to do about transportation and how we're going to pay for it. To maintain mobility of people and goods as we continue to grow, particularly in our major metropolitan areas, roads alone will not suffice, and we will have to invest in multi-modal transportation systems. If we do not, Florida's economy and quality of life will suffer.

RinR: "Multi-modal transportation systems?"

Pelham: Yes, more modes of travel, everything from walking, to bicycling, to riding the bus. City-to-city, regional commuter rail systems are going to be increasingly important, and there are already some encouraging signs about that. There's a commuter rail project that's very close I think to fruition in the Orlando area, for example, and one I believe in the planning stages by the new Tampa Bay transportation authority. Our current transportation concurrency system is geared strictly to the automobile. And it focuses all of our resources on roads. If that's the only thing we have to offer—the interstate highway—we're in serious trouble. The car will always be there, but we simply have to offer people options. One recent report (by 1000 Friends of Florida) projects 18 million more people living here in the next three or four decades. How are we going to maintain mobility? Our major metropolitan areas will become dysfunctional if we don't have transportation options.

RinR: Florida Forever, the state's number-one land-acquisition program, is running out of money and time—its authority is set to expire in 2010. What are your views on the program?

Pelham: I think that program and its predecessor program have contributed greatly to Florida. I think maintaining a program like that is very important. We're at hard economic times at the moment and it's going to be very difficult, certainly, to increase the amount of money in the next couple of years. But I do think a program like that is essential to the future of the state.

RinR: From your perspective and experience what's the best hope we have for keeping Florida livable for our kids and their kids?

Pelham: I think we have to have at the top of our agenda creating and maintaining a sustainable Florida. We have a great opportunity now in these rural areas we talked about earlier to show that we can accommodate growth and development in a way that sustains those areas as viable agricultural economies, viable rural economies that protect environmental resources and agricultural lands. We have an opportunity to show that we can do a lot better than we did in the past. And I think that means taking a firm line and holding people's feet to the fire on the fundamental requirements of our growth management and environmental laws. They're still there. We just have to be serious about them. If we ignore the increasing water problem, for example, if we continue to sprawl all over the state, Florida will not be a very livable place, you know, some years down the road. I think that requires working at it every day. Our growth can be a blessing or it can be a curse. And it is up to us to make sure that it's a blessing.

END