by Craig Pittman, Florida Phoenix
November 16, 2023
When people talk about the great love stories of history, they often mention such figures as Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (not in a can), and Johnny and June Carter Cash, who got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout.
But this roll call of romance leaves out one contemporary match made in Florida that I contend contains far more passion than all the rest.
I am speaking of our fine Legislature and our rapacious development industry. They love each other SO much! And they’re willing to do just about anything for each other. It’s so sweet!
Case in point: Last week, the Legislature held a special session in Tallahassee. Their glorious purpose was to further burnish the presidential credentials of Gov. Ron “I Didn’t Know It Was So Hard to Run in High Heels” DeSantis. For instance, one major drive involved banning the state pension fund from investing in companies that do business with Iran, which is definitely the No. 1 priority of every insurance-paying homeowner in Florida.
But they snuck in a little surprise gift for their developer darlings, too.
In a bill to supply aid to the victims of Hurricane Ian and Idalia, lawmakers told local governments in counties hammered by the storm that they were not allowed to make “burdensome” changes to their land-use or growth plan regulations for three years.
No learning from their mistakes and trying to avoid repeating them. No sir! The tyrants of Tallahassee have decreed that that kind of education is as forbidden as learning anything negative ever happened during Black history.
As one House committee was discussing the bill last week, one of our fine lawmakers, Rep. Bob Rommel, R-UForReal?, noted that section with approval, and then he added, “There is nothing more important than protecting private property rights.”
Yes, that’s MUCH more important than protecting people’s lives.
Is it kookypants-crazy to claim that property is worth more than human beings? Sure it is. But you say crazy stuff like that when you’re madly in love.
Do it again
I think I am safe in calling what occurred on Florida’s beaches prior to Hurricane Ian a “building frenzy” — as in “a temporary madness.”
Developers were determined to take advantage of a hot housing market and thus built soooo much stuff along the state’s fragile barrier islands, way more than they should have. They were in such a swivet to meet demand that they far exceeded the density limits in most of the state.
State law says that in coastal areas, the density of development is not supposed to exceed an evacuation time of 16 hours for a Category 5 storm.
A month before Ian hit, Lee County officials admitted in a hearing that their evacuation time was 96 hours — in other words, 80 more hours than it should have been. And they said that only nine of the state’s 45 coastal counties could claim to be faster.
Then Ian slammed into the Southwest Florida coast and killed 148 people. As NBC News noted, “Scores drowned as they fled on foot, while in their cars, or after seawater swallowed their homes. … Many residents, especially those who were new to the area, didn’t know that they lived in storm surge danger zones.”
Of those, 61 died in Lee County, more than in any other county: “Thirty-three of the Lee County deaths were in the federal government’s documented storm surge danger zone; 28 of those were in the most hazardous areas on barrier islands and directly along the coast.”
An objective person might look at what happened and say, “Hey, let’s not build back exactly where the storm surge knocked down houses and drowned people. And maybe we should try to stick to the evacuation times in the law.”
But there’s no one like that in our Legislature, where the official anthem appears to be Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.”
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-UKiddingMe?, told Politico Florida that the goal of this moratorium on making changes is — I am paraphrasing here — to help builders rebuild in exactly the same way in exactly the same place that was wiped out before so it can be wiped out again.
“The aftermath of a hurricane isn’t the time to impose new costly, burdensome, bureaucratic requirements and might inhibit the ability of a family or business to rebuild on land they have owned for generations,” she said.
Madame President, I would submit that that’s EXACTLY the time to steer builders away from places prone to deadly flooding. Otherwise, their customers may not survive the next storm.
But if you are absolutely besotted by your builder buddies, you may disagree.
Howling at a hurricane
If you want proof of how much our lawmakers love developers, consider this: The bill that passed during last week’s special session wasn’t the first to preempt “burdensome” changes to building codes.
Their first pass at thwarting the do-gooders to benefit developers happened during the regular session back in the spring. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-USomeKindaWacko?, warned local officials in the area hit by Ian against trying to impose any new rules deemed “more restrictive or burdensome” than what was already on the books.
That one, signed into law by Gov. DeSastrous — er, excuse me, DeSantis — would have expired in 2024 and covered a 100 square mile radius affected by the hurricanes.
This new one, which the governor signed into law this week, extends the ban through 2026 and lists 10 specific counties that must obey its dictates: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Manatee, and Sarasota.
Paul Owens, president of the smart-growth group 1000 Friends of Florida, and lobbyist David Cullen of the Sierra Club were the lone naysayers. Both tried to convince lawmakers to take that section out of the hurricane relief bill filed by Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-UReadyToScreamYet? (Shoaf, you may recall, was last mentioned in this column when he called for bringing back bear hunts.)
When I talked to Owens, he pointed out that the bill “takes the authority out of the hands of the local governments to … say maybe we need to reassess what kind of development is appropriate in these areas in the wake of these storms.”
Blocking the locals from even considering improvements for the next three years “is a bad idea made worse,” he said.
But Owens and Cullen’s objections had as much effect as if they’d been yelling them into the teeth of a howling hurricane. No one seemed to hear them.
A couple of Democrats — that lonely, outnumbered bunch — did raise questions about that part of the bill too.
“It’s concerning to me,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-OhWhatsTheUse? “I want to make sure our local governments are building in ways that are smart.”
But the Dems didn’t try to amend the bill to remove that odious section. And when the time came, they voted to approve the whole bill. I didn’t see them holding their noses, either.
Oh, if only they’d talked to someone other than the developers they all love so much! Then they might have learned about all the unfortunate consequences of this bad idea, as I did.
Whenever I have questions about things that happen in Southwest Florida, I often call Jim Beever. He spent 16 years in that area as a biologist for the state wildlife commission and then 17 years with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.
He said that blocking the counties and cities from making “burdensome” changes to their land use rules ought to also prevent them from making foolish choices that would make storm preparation worse.
For instance, it should stop them from increasing the density of coastal areas that are already too dense for easy evacuation — which is exactly what Lee County is hoping to do to Captiva Island.
“They’re trying to put more people into hazardous areas,” Beever pointed out.
But this new law is fine with that, according to Owens.
“It’s OK to make changes to comprehensive plans and land development regulations that would be considered ‘less burdensome,’ such as increasing density or weakening flood protections,” he told me via email. “Just not anything that could be deemed more burdensome, like trying to keep people and property out of harm’s way.”
Too bad, Beever said. After all, he said, “Increased density would be burdensome on the environment and quality of life for existing residents of Captiva.”
Curious to see how this is playing out on the ground, I called up Wyatt Daltry, planning team coordinator for the city of Cape Coral, one of the places that Ian hit hard. He was, in a word, frustrated.
“This has absolutely hamstrung us,” he told me. “It’s extremely aggravating.”
It’s affecting a lot more than just storm-related planning, he said.
Cape Coral was working on the creation of a new commercial corridor through the city, with a six-lane arterial highway, he said. It doesn’t have anything to do with hurricanes. It’s just something the city needs, and so far it’s been supported by the residents.
To make it work, though, requires banning new residential development in that area. But the new state law prevents such a change, he said. As a result, the commercial corridor is on hold until the law expires.
“I would call it the law of unintended consequences,” he said, “except I’m not sure it was unintended.”
Cape Coral isn’t alone. The Naples Daily News reported that Marco Island ran into a similar problem with its new, voter-approved single-family home rental registration program.
The city hired six new employees, bought four vehicles, and spent $727,000 to set it up. Now the city has to pull the plug. While the voters okayed the program, it ran afoul of the new state law.
But wait! It gets worse.
No flood insurance?
Wyatt Daltry wasn’t the only Daltry I called about all this.
I also called his dad, Wayne Daltry, who was once Lee County’s smart growth coordinator, back when Lee County cared about doing smart things.
Before that, Daltry spent 20 years as executive director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. He knows how this stuff is supposed to work, and what goes wrong when it doesn’t.
The elder Daltry also has a master’s in sarcasm. One thing he told me was that the Legislature must have passed this law because the lawmakers didn’t think neeeeearly enough people died in the last storm.
Then he pointed out another unintended consequence of the new law: If the property owners aren’t going to do a better job of rebuilding in the coastal areas that were smashed to splinters by the storms, they risk losing federal flood insurance.
Banks that finance construction won’t like that.
“They can’t afford to go without federal flood insurance,” he told me.
Few people are able to pay cash for property, he said. That means they need a bank loan to pay for it. However, the banks don’t want to lend money for an uninsured property that’s likely to be destroyed, leaving them with no way to make their money back.
“The lenders tend to get upset if you don’t have federal flood insurance for that property,” he said.
Florida’s lawmakers were so busy swooning over the developers they love, they apparently didn’t think about that. This happened, he said, because “you’ve got a Legislature that’s sold itself out for a mess of pottage.”
Not really pro-life
If you were to ask a majority of our lawmakers if they were pro-life, they would tell you yes. They’d probably say it in a loud and clear voice.
They might even sing it out like it’s karaoke night and they’re roaring the chorus to that beautiful love song “I Feel the Earth Move” by Carole King.
Shoaf, for instance, has called himself “a Pro-Life, Christian conservative.” Shoaf, Passidomo, Martin, and Rommel all voted for a ban on abortions after six weeks. DeSantis signed that bill into law (although he did so behind closed doors, as if he were somehow ashamed of it).
But their actions paint a far different picture.
You can’t call yourself “pro-life” and also support putting people at risk of being killed by the next hurricane. You can’t be pro-life and also put property rights ahead of keeping people safe from harm.
I’d argue you can’t even call yourself a Christian if you are OK with builders fooling people into buying homes likely to be flooded by the next big storm. I can’t see Jesus ever doing that, can you? He was all about saving people, not putting them in danger for a few dollars of profit.
But that’s what you get when the people who are supposed to represent us in Tallahassee decide they love their campaign contributors in the development industry more than life itself.
Their passion for pleasing developers is like a fever hotter than a pepper sprout — a fever that should make us all feel sick.
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