WASHINGTON — Erick Gustafson grew up in a different Sarasota than he left seven years ago.
Condominiums and vacation homes have replaced trailer parks on Longboat Key. Hotels have risen. Strip malls have been built. Countless tiffs about signage and aesthetics have flared.
Now a campaign director for the Washington watchdog group Citizens for a
Sound Economy, Gustafson complains that communities growing in affluence, such as Sarasota, tend to exert more control over land use. That’s worrisome enough, he says, but it would be worse if Washington and state governments meddle in local planning.
A new weapon in the war on sprawl, funded by the federal government, has sounded alarms among property rights, construction and business groups.
“You can’t keep changing the rules, because the marketplace reacts very erratically in instances like that. They should not be changed on a retroactive basis,” Gustafson said. “They’re promulgating a whole new set of guidelines on how signs should look and how wetlands should be treated.”
Opponents, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have waged a losing battle to kill the American Planning Association’s forthcoming “Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook.” Seven years in the making — with $ 1.8 million in federal support from six agencies led by the Department of Housing and Urban Development — the guide is more than 1,200 pages of strategy and model laws governing subjects from agriculture to zoning.
More than 20 House Republicans, including Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, also called for the book’s burial. But the Bush administration allowed it to be published, probably in January.
“The problem here is it comes out signed off on by HUD and has the force of being marketed as the administration’s take on planning policy,” said Frank Vitello, spokesman for Defenders of Property Rights.
“It’s a compendium of options,” countered Jeff Soule, policy director for the planning association. “It’s not a single one-size-fits-all piece of legislation. “
The book tackles one of the greatest issues facing many communities in the country, particularly in the booming South. For years, candidates for local offices have pledged “smart growth,” a term tossed around as the answer to complaints about urban sprawl.
But one person’s sprawl is another’s economic engine.
The guide is a menu of laws that state and local authorities can adopt, adapt or ignore. Federal officials and the association say it doesn’t espouse a viewpoint, but critics disagree.
Most people won’t know if their government officials have the manual on their desks when writing new laws. But its ideas could trickle down to the lives of property owners everywhere.
At least, that’s what the planning association wants. Its 8,000 copies mostly will go to state lawmakers and governors who will decide whether to follow a central assumption of the book: that statewide and regional bureaucracies should play prominent roles in oversight or control.
“It is an important work about the role of states in setting the climate for planning,” Soule said.
The association intends to follow up on the guide with a policy book to be released in April that will steer lawmakers toward the group’s favored options, Soule said.
Critics see this as a new step by the federal government into local planning debates. The Clinton administration approved the project in 1994, an example, critics say, of an environmental agenda intruding on local affairs.
Some opponents argue the book is biased against the type of low-density development that many Americans prefer.
“It is not in our view complete in its choices and tends to strengthen the hand of those who would put a ring around development and favor high density,” said Tony Obadal, a lawyer for Associated Equipment Distributors, a trade group that includes construction equipment companies.
The book will probably get some attention in the Florida legislature, which tried unsuccessfully in 2001 to revamp the state’s growth management laws in response to a report by Gov. Jeb Bush’s Growth Management Study Commission. The Florida legislative effort succumbed to clashes between environmental, commercial and individual concerns but is likely to rise again.
Mel Martinez, now the HUD secretary, chaired Florida’s growth commission before being tapped for his cabinet post.
Critics lobbied him in November to stop publication of the planning guide because HUD was the lead government agency. Martinez, however, let it go forward without comment, to the relief of the planning association. His growth commission recommended rolling back state oversight that Florida had been a pioneer in implementing in the 1980’s, but he has a clear interest in growth management.
Meanwhile, communities continue to grope for solutions. Some have concluded that working together — an underlying goal of the planning guide — would be smart. In 2002, for example, Manatee County will negotiate with its cities and towns to draw up a unified vision for the next 50 years.
The decision was not quite voluntary.
“Different jurisdictions were basically suing each other over land use issues,” said Michael Wood, the comprehensive planning administrator for Manatee County.
The situation has played out in different forms in many communities.
Priorities clashed in 2000 when the city of Bradenton annexed land on Perico Island and approved a 10-story condominium project. Bradenton is now a defendant in a lawsuit brought by three beach towns and the County Commission, who argue the building would violate the county’s comprehensive plan.
The planning association wants to avoid such conflicts with more regional and state oversight. But critics say the guide will be used as a federally funded blueprint for big government.
“Advocates of increased government are going to try to construct a case, and they’re going to look to whatever authoritative sources they can,” Gustafson said.