Lake Worth voters spoke loud and clear in March when they decided, by a 56 to 44 percent margin, to put new limits on building heights in the city’s eastern downtown. But those voters might as well have stayed home, because a new state law has rendered their vote null and void. No longer, it seems, are local voters allowed to decide such things as building height limits. The state Legislature won’t let them.
A little-noticed change to state law signed last month by Gov. Rick Scott bars cities and counties from holding voter referendums on most issues that affect those municipalities’ zoning and development rules. Most prominently, this means an end to voter-led efforts to limit heights on buildings in their towns and cities.
State lawmakers first attempted to ban such citizen votes on zoning issues back in 2011, but legal challenges and court rulings, including one involving Boca Raton, required the Legislature to amend the rule last year and again this year. The newly amended law is retroactive to June 2012, so Lake Worth’s city attorney says one of the apparent victims is this year’s height-limit vote.
The hypocrisy is rich in the Legislature’s effort to limit citizens’ ability to determine how cities and counties grow. In 2011, lawmakers gutted the state’s growth management rules to all but eliminate the state’s role in signing off on local zoning and planning decisions. The supposed justification was to allow municipalities to make those existential decisions on their own.
Now, though, state lawmakers are doing the opposite. They have handed down a law that restricts communities’ abilities to make grassroots decisions. Yes, local elected officials can still vote to make changes to their own zoning and development rules, but actual citizens have been cut out of the process.
We opposed the vote on new height limits in Lake Worth’s downtown, which we think needlessly discouraged investment in the city without doing much to preserve the city’s character. Lake Worth already had height limits downtown, and the area affected by the vote – the portion east of Federal Highway – had several buildings higher than the new 45-foot limit being proposed.
But while we didn’t like the vote’s outcome, we really don’t like Tallahassee’s decree that such votes are no longer permitted. Stifling citizens’ voices on these issues leaves only the voice of elected officials susceptible to special interests. Kind of like state legislators.
for The Post Editorial Board