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Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

The Yellow Brick Road

With the recent opening of the Riverside Arts Market, the Jazz Festival on Laura Street, the Sail Jacksonville Tall Ships this weekend, and the Mayor’s announcement that he would focus his last two years in office on the river and downtown, it seems like downtown is becoming the place to be.  While these are great developments that are badly needed in Jacksonville, it may be wise to take a step back and lay a foundation to ensure the continued success of the urban core area.  In addition, the City also needs to lay the groundwork for a great mass transit system.  (Of course, that’s a little hard to do when the JTA folks don’t show up to their own public meetings.)  Otherwise, we’re potentially building our efforts on shifting sand – with one shot events that never have enough substance to result in a permanent or vibrant downtown.

In order to see where we want to go as a city, exercises like the recent Reality Check are certainly helpful to picture exactly how we would like Jacksonville to look.  However, in order for that vision to be successful we have to build the “regulatory” structure to ensure that we are encouraging the right development in the right place.  And that means we should examine the existing structure – the comprehensive plan, zoning code, subdivision regulations – and investigate new options such as urban growth boundaries and other measures that will discourage greenfield development and revitalize neighborhoods, protect open space, keep housing affordable, and provide more transportation choices.

Jacksonville is unique in its consolidated government, but that uniqueness has also caused us to have growth problems.  Other municipalities have boundaries within incorporated areas; our municipal boundary is the county line, giving lots more opportunities for sprawl than normally found in other cities.  While Jacksonville is more similar to Miami-Dade County, even Miami-Dade has numerous cities within the county boundaries. It also has an established urban growth boundary.

For many years, I-295 was Jacksonville’s defacto urban growth boundary.   Many developments sprang up, with the common joke being that the City rarely met a development it didn’t like.  Comprehensive plan amendments were passed out like candy treats.  Rezonings occurred in some cases with zoning signage laying down on the ground of the property to be rezoned, effectively eliminating input from potentially affected parties.   In  addition, transpostation concurrency funds paid by developers and intended to mitigate impacts to existing roads went missing from city accounts.  In some cases, roads or other improvements were not built ahead of the new or additional development, but rather waited until development was finished, if the improvements were built at all.  (See Council Auditor Report # 621.) Then in 2007, the Legislature passed HB 7203.  This legislation began a pilot project for several commuities, including Jacksonville, that allowed them to avoid state review for numerous development projects.  And so we find ourselves in the current situation – crowded streets, long commutes, and car-dependent.

This year, the Legislature passed what was supposed to be a glitch bill (SB 360) to fix some of the unintended consequences of previous growth management legislation.  However, the bill that passed will be of no help to Jacksonville’s growth management and mass transit advocates.

According to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), although SB 360 was intended to direct growth into urban areas, its implementation will present significant isssues and challenges.  For example, the legislation eliminates transportation concurrency and the DRI process (the primary regulatory tools for mitigating local and regional transportation impacts of development) without providing for any alternative methods of addressing these impacts.  Eliminating these tools without putting anything in their place will weaken the state’s growth management process according to the DCA.

In addition, if SB 360 becomes law, Jacksonville, along with 200+ cities, will automatically become a transportation concurrency exception area shortly ater July 1, 2009.  The legislation does not provide any transition period for Jacksonville and the other cities to adopt local replacements to transportation concurrency.  According to DCA”s analysis, the abrupt termination of transportation concurrency is likely to cause confusion and controversy and generate litigation over the power of local governments to adopt replacements for transportation concurrency.  DCA states that already there have been suggestions that local governments may need to adopt moratoria to give time to adopt new regulations.   The lack of regulatory certainty and predictability may impede, rather than encourage, economic development.

The Act contemplates future adoption of a mobility fee to replace transportation concurrency, but there is no guarantee that the Legislature will adopt a mobility fee system.  DCA and the FL Department of Transportation are required to put together recommendations for a mobility fee system to be provided to the Legislature by December 2009. However, even if the Legislature should adopt a mobility fee system in 2010, implementation may take a year or two.

According to DCA, the Act also creates substantial new workloads for local governments and DCA without providing any new resources to accomplish the tasks.  As a transportation concurrency exemption area, Jacksonville is now required to adopt land use and transportation strategies within 2 years to support and fund mobility, including alternative modes of transportation, such as mass transit.  Additionally, other local governments are authorized to adopt urban service boundary amendments that would also trigger these same requirements.  This could be a very expensive and onerous task – yet no financial support or new revenue sources have been provided to undertake this planning.

Further, until December 2011, local government commitments to provide potable water, wastewater, drainage, parks, solid waste, and public schools will not be subject to a demonstration that improvements adequate to achieve and maintain level of service standards will be supported by committed funding in the first 3 years of the capital improvement schedule.  This is critical for water supply, where the Legislature has mandated that the water management districts and local governments adopt 20 year and 10 year, respectively, water supply work plans, the first 5 years of which must be in the capital improvement schedule.

Finally, the legislation may create a stampede of plan amendments to take advantage of relaxed planning requirements.  DCA reports that it has already experienced an increase in the volume and geographic scale of future land use map amendments over the past two years.  DCA speculates that some of these increases may have been due to increased concerns over the Hometown Democracy constitutional amendment which may be on the ballot in 2010.

Numerous local governments, growth management advocates, newspaper editorial boards, and now CFO Alex Sink, have called for Governor Crist to veto the bill.  In addition, in a recent Jacksonville Business Journal poll, voters were 2 to 1 against relaxing growth management laws.   Governor Crist has yet to show which way he’s leaning, but with the deadline for gubernatorial action fast approaching (June 2nd), rumors have abounded that Crist may allow the legislation to become law without his signature.  If SB 360 does become law, Jacksonville potentially could be without a meaningful growth management regulatory structure for up to three years.

As Adam Smith, a reporter for the St Pete Times, recently tweeted: If Crist signs a growth management bill panned by all enviros and editorial boards – groups he cares about – should we assume his motivation is strictly donors?

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Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , ,

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