Five years after Gov. Rick Scott scaled back Florida’s growth laws, massive development projects are underway across the state, boosting employment and tax collections but also sparking fears of traffic-choked roads and environmental calamities.
Palm Beach County’s unincorporated western area is the site of almost 14,000 new homes planned in coming years, spread across four new communities, including Westlake, whose developers want to make it the county’s 39th city.
But similar, multi-thousand-acre projects are also in the works this spring across remote stretches of scrub and wetland – virtually in every corner of Florida.
Such mega-projects as Babcock Ranch, Plum Creek, Lake Pickett and Deseret Ranch, are poised to add thousands of houses, millions of feet of commercial space and swell the state’s population through the next decade by converting vast amounts of rural land.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Paulette Burdick, who fought much of the western growth in her county, traces Florida’s boom to Scott’s actions in 2011.
“It just kicked the door open,” Burdick said. “But the impact of all this development is ultimately going to be picked up by the taxpayers. They’re the ones who will have to pay for the needed roads, the schools and improving the bad water we’ll be left with.”
Florida 'is on a roll'
Scott, however, views the crush of development differently.
Sworn in just months before he overhauled state growth standards in place through three decades, Scott took office with unemployment close to 12 percent.
By last month, Florida’s jobless rate had fallen to 4.8 percent.
“I think the state is really heading in the right direction,” Scott said.
“You can get a job,” he said. “There are 265,000 job openings in our state right now. We have the money to invest in transportation, we have the money to invest in education. We’ve made significant investments in our environment.
“The state is on a roll.”
Changes in law lead to changes in growth
Scott may have started that in motion five years ago by guiding a willing Legislature through a rewrite of growth management standards first enacted in 1985.
Under the changes, state oversight of local planning was limited mostly to projects with statewide impact. Standards for citizens challenging development projects also were toughened, giving builders more leeway for projects they can prove will have some positive economic impact.
The Republican-led Legislature had been bristling for years at growth management. Critics of the law said it was overly burdensome and blunted the state’s ability to bounce back from an economic slump rooted – paradoxically — by what many agree was overbuilding.
Under the changes five years ago, concurrency – a requirement that schools, parks and adequate roads be in place before development is completed – was reduced to an option for cities and counties.
Scott and the Legislature also eliminated the state agency overseeing growth management, the Department of Community Affairs.
That department’s remaining duties were folded into the then-newly created Department of Economic Opportunity, a shift that underscored the new approach in Tallahassee.
“What we really want the state of Florida to do is provide assistance when they ask,” said then-Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, a sponsor of the legislation.
As a first-year governor, Scott also cut $700 million from property taxes going to water management districts – forcing wholesale layoffs and further reducing state oversight.
But Scott and lawmakers weren’t done.
Last year, one of the state’s oldest processes for managing large-scale projects — the so-called Development of Regional Impact process, launched in 1972 — was eliminated.
“The level of scrutiny the state had before 2011 was pretty great,” said Ryan Smart, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, an advocacy organization that pushes for better urban planning and protection of the state’s natural resources.
“Now, some of the regulations may have been too much,” he conceded. “But we would never have seen the scope of projects we have today in the places where they’re being built.”
Smart and other critics of the state’s new pro-growth era say that with the state abandoning much of its oversight of major planning, developers have been able to exert powerful influence on local governments, particularly city and county commissions.
Palm Beach County development
In Palm Beach County, Westlake’s bid to become a city would give the new government authority to continue expanding the project, whose scope was approved by county commissioners in 2014.
The commission approved the approximately 4,500-home development, with 2.1 million square feet of shopping space, just north of Lion Country Safari in The Acreage, a rural community.
Westlake also is located within the Seminole Improvement District, 4,000 acres that are home to only five registered voters. Three of them last month petitioned to form a municipal government.
But even without such action, large-scale projects across Florida now usually only need to win approval from a majority of county commissioners to get a green light. The state plays little role anymore in gauging a development’s potential impact.
After the Palm Beach County Commission gave Westlake, formerly known as Minto West, the go-ahead, environmental groups, including 1000 Friends, continued trying to halt it, arguing that it is incompatible with the surrounding rural area and violates the county’s growth plan because it will clog rural roads with traffic.
But a judge last month dismissed a lawsuit filed by opponents, a move that all but clears the way for the project. Opponents last week appealed the ruling.
And Westlake is only one of several major projects targeted for what once was viewed as the county’s remote west, an area neighboring the Loxahatchee River and its watershed.
North of Westlake, Avenir is envisioned at 3,250 homes, along with 2.4 million square feet of commercial space and hotels. It received its final approval from the Palm Beach Gardens City Council this month and is to be built in stages over 20 years.
Farther west than both Westlake and Avenir, Indian Trails Grove, a GL Homes project of 3,943 homes and almost 340,000 square feet of commercial and office space, received its initial approval from the Palm Beach County Commission in April, while Arden, formerly known as Highland Dunes, is looking to build 2,000 homes on the edge of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge just west of Wellington.
Interactive Map: How Florida is growing
Explore the biggest developments happening in Palm Beach County. Zoom out to see which major Florida projects are underway or in the planning stages.
What’s happening in Palm Beach County is mirrored across the state.
Huge projects are at some stage of development from the Panhandle to the edge of the Everglades in Florida’s Southwest.
On what had been timber and farm land in Charlotte County on the Gulf coast, a city whose acreage is bigger than Manhattan is beginning to emerge. In Orange County, 4,000 homes are on their way east of the Econlockhatchee River, long a dividing line between urban and rural Central Florida. Prime Florida panther habitat is targeted for development in eastern Collier County, just southeast of Palm Beach County.
Many of the projects attempt to maintain some environmental component, which can soften criticism from conservation groups and eventually attract new homebuyers.
Charlotte’s Babcock Ranch has sold thousands of acres to the state for preservation and will get its electricity, in part, through solar power. Similarly, the Plum Creek development in the Gainesville area will include miles of green space and is seen as a jobs-creating mecca.
Growth and revenue
This wholesale building boom also can be traced in state statistics.
Real estate tax collections, a strong barometer of growth, soared 17 percent last year in Florida to $2.1 billion.
That was the highest level in the state since 2006 when these documentary stamp taxes paid on real estate transactions began toppling from a pre-recession high of $4 billion in 2005, a towering mark propelled upward by two straight years of hurricane rebuilding.
The most building permits in a decade also were issued last year in Florida after five years of growth.
The rising tax receipts not only are proof of a rebounding economy, but also carry a political component. They helped fuel a state budget that hit $82 billion this year for the first time, and allowed Scott to make good on his re-election promise to give back $1 billion in tax breaks.
Joshua Harris, a University of Central Florida professor of real estate and finance, said project proposals have flourished since growth management was overhauled. He called the earlier regulations “a complicated mess.”
“Developers are building because people want to live here,” Harris said of Florida. “The 2011 changes have made it less costly to build, easier to get through and, frankly, we are just running out of houses.”
Harris said Scott and the Legislature’s rollback of state regulations was eased by the recession.
“When you have double-digit unemployment, environmental concerns, growth management – those are the kinds of things that go out the window,” he said.
The Indian River Lagoon on the state’s Atlantic shore and Caloosahatchee River on the Gulf of Mexico side have been badly fouled by freshwater runoff from Lake Okeechobee, carrying pollutants from neighborhoods, farms and cities.
At the same time, freshwater springs, concentrated mostly in Central and North Florida, have proved particularly vulnerable to pollutants from nearby development. Such landmark sites as Silver Springs, Wakulla Springs and Fanning Springs are choked by nutrients and algae.
Scott, though, defends his environmental record. He points to steering $880 million toward advancing long-stalled Everglades’ projects while backing major efforts for cleaning the Indian River Lagoon and endangered springs.
These initiatives would not be possible without the dollars provided by the building projects that are flourishing in Florida, he said.
“All that’s happened,” Scott said, “because we’ve turned around our economy.”
PERMITS FOR NEW HOUSES
Building permits for new houses in Florida.
Source: U.S. Census
REAL ESTATE TRANSACTION TAXES
Statewide documentary stamp tax collections paid on real estate transactions.
2015: $2.1 billion
2014: $1.8 billion
2013: $1.6 billion
2012: $1.3 billion
2011: $1.2 billion
2010: $1.1 billion
2009: $1.1 billion
2008: $2 billion
2007: $3 billion
2006: $4 billion
2005: $3.4 billion
2004: $2.6 billion
Source: Florida Department of Revenue
View interactive map detailing where the mega-developments are coming in Florida, myPalmBeachPost.com/boommap