By Dom Nozzi
For 20 years, I was a long-range comprehensive planner for Gainesville, Florida. I was hired by to be a planner in 1986 to help that city comply with the 1985 Growth Management Law that the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) administered.
Frankly, I would find it difficult to shed tears if, as was proposed a few years ago, DCA (or the Growth Management Law) were dismantled.
The 1985 Growth Management Law was adopted largely as a way to protect quality of life in Florida, and prevent costly sprawl in Florida cities and counties.
But it almost entirely failed to do either.
The reason for its failure was that the “teeth” of the Law was “road concurrency.” That is, new development could not be approved unless it was demonstrated that adequate road capacity was available to serve the new development. This road concurrency standard, therefore, had as its implicit assumption that ensuring adequate road capacity and “free-flowing” traffic was the key to promoting quality of life and discouraging sprawl.
The consequence of the law, of course, was that roads were widened, in some cases, to maintain “adequate” road capacity, as a condition for development approval. When that was not possible, the development was either not given permission to build, or its density was substantially reduced as a condition for development approval.
Sprawl was therefore powerfully and unintentionally promoted because widened roads are the most powerful engine I know of for sprawl inducement. As noted above, the Growth Management Law was largely compelling developers and communities to widen roads, ironically.
Another enormous irony is that the road concurrency standard is anti-city and anti-infill (which promotes sprawl). Why? Because town centers and other infill areas tend to have the LEAST available/unused road capacity, and remote sprawl locations have the MOST available road capacity.
So the unspoken message from the Growth Management Law is if you wish to get road concurrency approval to obtain permission to construct a development project, you should build in sprawl locations rather than in town center locations to get road concurrency approval. After all, that is where the road capacity can be found!
In addition, if road capacity is not available for the proposed new development, it is quite common for the developer and the community to have insufficient funds to widen the road for more capacity. The common solution, as I noted above, is to therefore reduce the proposed development density (to load less car trips on the roads serving the development). To make it more suburban in density. Low suburban densities are ruinous to cities, and promote extremely high levels of unsustainable car dependency (by making walking, bicycling and transit extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Given this, my hope is that a challenge to the existence of DCA, the Growth Management Law, or both, in Florida will result in much-needed reform. Reform that can actually serve to promote quality of life, urbanism and sprawl reduction objectives.
Florida needs a substantially revised Growth Management Law. One that does not emphasize “adequate road capacity” as the key condition for development approval. Instead, it needs a law that requires something more in the direction of transect-driven, form-based coding (see http://transect.org/transect.html) as the key condition for approval. One that is designed to reward walkable, town center development – not punish it. One that is designed to promote a quality habitat for people, not cars.
All of this is not to say that Florida has a governor and legislature that is in any way sympathetic to quality urbanism. But I do believe that like with major hurricanes in Florida and Louisiana in recent times, this “dismantling” of DCA or the Florida Growth Management Law may be a critical opportunity for proponents of form-based land development codes to be involved in the much-needed reform of state planning laws and the state planning agency (DCA), so that the law delivers compact urbanism, not car-based sprawl.