Can Florida Escape the Horse Latitudes?


When it comes to the winds of change, Florida remains in the horse latitudes.  This zone of the Atlantic around 30 degrees latitude was so named by ship captains because their ships, becalmed in the water, seemed to move faster when they lightened their load by throwing off a few horses.  Florida’s governor Rick Scott, who campaigned on a promise to create 700,000 jobs in this state, appears to have adopted the same tactic by throwing overboard the Department of Community Affairs, the state agency that regulated real estate development.  Other bureaucracies may be next in line if the state doesn’t show signs of improvement soon.

Billy Buzzett, appointed head of this bureaucracy, was in Orlando last week to discuss the new future of Florida growth management.  Growth will now be lightly monitored by the Department of Economic Opportunity , which is in charge of reviewing development plans, and will handle unemployment benefits as well.  Mr. Buzzett stated that the department’s mission will also include items such as weatherization of structures for hurricanes. All of this is good, but it’s a puzzling mix to throw into a single bureaucracy.  Obviously, real estate regulation is not the focus of this governor, who saw regulation as one of the chief obstacles to creating jobs in this state.

The Department of Community Affairs was created in 1985 to set some standards for quality of life as well as for environmental protection.  Failing at both tasks, the DCA came under fire during the last election cycle as a statewide referendum (Amendment 4) on growth gained support from people tired of seeing forests converted into strip malls.  The referendum, narrowly defeated, would have people vote in Cailfornia-style ballots for such changes.  This may have been a bad idea, based on how California’s growth controls have stifled its once vibrant economy.

In this era of minimal new building, the reinvention of growth management may be seen as a way to pass the time while we wait for the economy to recover.  In reality, however, there are some very large implications in the future.

Governor Scott wants the state to be more like Texas, which regulates with a far lighter hand and seems to be navigating through this particularly horrid recession better than other big states.  Texas has growth and does not have an onerous, time-consuming process which weeds out all but the deepest pocketed investors.  Unlike Texas, however, Florida has few natural resources like oil and mineral wealth to fall back on for revenue, and therefore deregulates itself without any diversification of income stream.

What this means to the local economy will be hard to predict.  Certainly, the DCA was able to negotiate with private developers, and helped to shield cities and counties from a lot of the pressure from out-of-state interests.  Without the DCA, it will be interesting to watch which of Florida's regions stand up to this pressure and which regions, starved for cash, cave in to the pressures of growth.

Although defeated, Amendment 4 clearly scared the real estate interests to death.  Legislation now prevents anything like that from happening again.  While real estate development clearly needs to be left in the hands of professionals, it also seems to have risen to the top of citizens’ awareness.  Whether it stays there or not is up to the state’s citizens, most of whom immigrated from elsewhere in search of the good life.  Growth benefitted the lowest economic class by creating cheap housing, construction jobs and access to consumer goods.  Florida, however, by grabbing the bottom tranche of workers, has missed a chance to build a more vertically integrated middle class with higher skilled workers.

Orlando in particular is in an unfortunate situation, as it has no natural hard boundaries like the sea.  Like Atlanta, Central Florida’s metropolitan area can grow in concentric rings forever and ever, gobbling up more agriculture, wetlands, and forests.  Such a development pattern puts value on the rim, rather than in the center, leaving the older parts of the city devoid of investment, energy, and hope.  With private interests, whose mission is to grab the low hanging fruit, in chargethere will be little redevelopment of these interior districts, despite the sunk costs of infrastructure that could give them an edge. 

Making more stuff is the business of growth.  Making stuff better is the business of development.  And development is what older neighborhood areas like this sorely need.  Successful in-fill redevelopment, in both suburban and urban locations, can still happen if employment can be added to the mix.

It is up to our region's leadership to turn this pattern around, and start valuing our real estate a little differently than in the past.  For example, debasing our wetlands to their mere economic value overlooks their larger value in terms of biodiversity.  Bringing wetlands and agriculture into our growth management policy would be a good first step towards creating a sustainable future for Central Florida.  Florida’s environmental movement need not turn into a shrill anti-growth machine as has happened elsewhere, but should be a partner with the real estate interests to protect the more long-term natural assets that bring so many to the Sunshine State in the first place.

Recycling also need not be just the job of the utility department.   Recycling land through the EPA’s brownfield program is already underway by many municipalities, and provides a vehicle to reinvent neighborhoods that have failed. 

As always, clean water will be the limiting factor to growth.  Already a concern of Florida, the state is divided into various water management districts, who regulate how clean water can be removed from the aquifer, and what kind of dirty water can be put into it.  No doubt this regulation will be under assault next.

Without Secretary Buzzett’s new department, Florida is already showing signs of new employment opportunities and diversity.  Military spending in Florida is up, thanks to the National Center for Simulation, and medical research spending is continuing at a steady pace.  These were added to the mix of growth, tourism, and agriculture upon which Florida has traditionally relied. More jobs that revolve around these two industries will include support technology, computer science, manufacturing, and services. 

These industries grew despite the regulatory burden of the state.  What is dangerous about Secretary Buzzett’s new department is its blasé treatment of the public’s genuine desire for better environmental management and a better quality of life.  Like many places, Florida has its share of “not in my backyard” sentiment reacting against more development.  The anger voiced in 2010 through Amendment 4, however, represented something new and deeper:  a collective sense that enough is enough.  Speculative development, built during the boom and remaining unoccupied to this day, is in every community, urban and rural.  Few believe that the empty condos, ghost town subdivisions, empty strip shopping centers, and vacant office parks are improvements over what was there before, and fewer still want this kind of insanity to return.

So the death of the DCA, which allowed speculative development to the point of embarrassment, may have been a good thing.  Employment-based growth, which so far has eluded Florida’s regions, may now have a chance to take place.  With the new industries arriving, job creation is already a reality - no horses had to be thrown overboard to make that happen. What Florida needs now is some leadership at the local level to promote more employment-based growth that is slow, but sure, and that is sustainable for the long haul.   

 Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

Photo: Desiree N. Williams

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