Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On the role of citizens in the future of the US economy ... by gimleteye

From time to time, national blogs pick up our posts and we get thousands of additional daily readers. The posts that are appealing are ones that get into the depth and depravity of the housing boom and crash, like early this week: "A Florida Sprawl Development's Road to Foreclosure".

The indepth report of a sprawl foreclosure-- one of Miami-Dade's housing boom skeletons-- triggered a noteworthy comment from"Brickell Avenue". My responses could fill a book. Brickell Avenue writes: "EOM what's your point? People make bad business decisions all the time, and here no home-owners are getting screwed. More importantly, you say "No new laws or regulations have been proposed to prevent these excesses from happening again." But holding the line doesn't prevent them either. Holding the line is a system set up for an annual fight for windfall comp plan changes. Why don't you become part of the solution instead of the undifferentiated mass that can't think of a better system?"

Here is a short form response:

Yes, people make bad business decisions all the time. But the bad development patterns of Florida (and other formerly fast growing regions of the nation) are so ubiquitous that they literally became a status quo. If everyone is doing it, it must be good. Finally, these development patterns could only survive through greater and greater injections of fraudulent debt, liar loans, and banker gimmicks. You don't get out of a hole, by digging deeper, but that is exactly what Brickell Avenue law firms and the lobbyists got paid so well to do. Today the remorse is creeping through. The downtown class is not getting paid well now for the work of builder association members, except related to new business managing vulture investors or condo laws or foreclosures and distress sales. You haven't read this story in The Miami Herald, by the way.

"Brickell Avenue" writes, "here no homeowners are getting screwed". Technically that may be true: in the one ghost subdivision, the development / land speculation collapse caught the owners by the short hairs. But in the larger scheme of things, millions of home owners were screwed by the shuck and jive of local bankers entwined with local elected officials in far flung suburbs like our own Idiotvilles and Homesteads; farmers and builder associations and their mutual fluffers who never saw a subdivision, a CDD, or a charter school or a boundary like the UDB that wasn't worth millions in crossing, breaching, and subdividing.

In the earlier post I wrote, "No new laws or regulations have been proposed to prevent these excesses from happening again." Our Brickell Avenue reader responds, "But holding the line doesn't prevent them either. Holding the line is a system set up for an annual fight for windfall comp plan changes." I've got two points to make here. First of all, the excesses of leap frog development can only be cured by matching at the federal and state level financial regulations of mortgage pools and subsequent securitization to good development policies. I've written about this before. What I am observing, however, is that the banking and insurance industries are fighting tooth and nail in DC to prevent ANY regulation of financial derivatives. Locally, the county commission-- the steadfast bulwark of the Growth Machine-- absolutely refuses to do the hard work of laying out specific planning, even where millions of dollars have been spent (ie. the South Dade Watershed Study) and tens of thousands of man hours committed to doing so.

Lastly "Brickell Avenue" writes, "Why don't you become part of the solution instead of the undifferentiated mass that can't think of a better system?" This is not a serious question. It is part of the repetitive shuck and jive. The Brickell Avenue crowd knows perfectly well that the only solution to land use planning is going to be one that they control. That's what they get the $500 per hour, for. Let me put it another way: level the playing field, Brickell Avenue, and I'll be part of a solution.

Anyone who has participated in public processes, including mind numbing hearings and the regurgitation of venom, garbage, and idiocy from the unreformable majority of the county commission, knows what predetermined outcomes look like. In fact, we have the Florida that perfectly reflects what the Growth Machine wanted.

Consider this outcome in the context of just one event: the Miami Dade Charter Review Commission where one appointee, Miguel De Grandy representing production homebuilders, sabotaged the slate of "solutions". The Charter Review process in 2008-- that did not exactly involve rabble rousers among the esteemed panel-- was an utter waste of time because, among other vanities, the Growth Machine was still convinced that the economic downturn was an ordinary course of the economic cycle and not an implosion of historic, even unprecedented dimensions that their national associations (NAHB, NAR, US Chamber of Commerce) and lobbyists substantially caused.

Even today, being "part of the solution" absorbs a raft of non-profit organizations and a few paid staffers who struggle under terms that are dictated by the Growth Machine. Some of them depend on contributions from corporate law firms and polluters and even some developers who skirt and push at the edge of the law (convinced, naturally, that they are doing right because, after all, they have the money to prove it). For civic groups and environmental organizations, being "part of the solution" also involves raising funds for litigation, in Miami-Dade and elsewhere, to oppose land use planning changes that local elected officials have supported-- like the assaults on the UDB. For citizen activists, "Being part of the solution" entails chasing well funded, at least formerly 'well funded' development entities, down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderlands while other, big and more global issues go unattended. Being "part of the solution" is part of the Hee-Haw Junction Tallahassee game played by Wade Hopping's crew, where really big money-- like money from Big Sugar-- gets mixed in with whatever local developers are agitating for, in terms of lowered standards, streamlined land use zoning and permitting, and on and on. Those conservative values of the "free market". For "Brickell Avenue" to suggest that that there is a place to be "part of the solution" or that this ordering doesn't govern Florida is not credible.

And that is why Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment 4 is a ray of hope for change. It is not a silver bullet, but the measure-- that will require local vote of comprehensive land use changes-- will reorder a dysfunctional, ethically bankrupt status quo. Some worry-worts are concerned that developers will still get their way, by paying for election campaigns that will instill fear amongst voters (Jobs, jobs, jobs!), but the status quo knows that Florida Hometown Democracy's Amendment 4 will level the playing field for the very first time in Florida. From that level playing field, there are lots of smart people who would like to be "part of the solution".

Until the playing field for future development rules and regulations is leveled to provide for orderly, rational economic growth, the ordinary taxpayer and citizen is just a chump.


Anonymous said...

Jobs bill has provisions to block environmental checks for developers
Environmental rules could be radically loosened for developers statewide under a new provision slipped into a Senate jobs bill

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE -- A jobs bill being considered by the Legislature includes several little-noticed provisions for streamlining environmental regulations to the point where some development projects of up to 40 acres wouldn't need state or local permits at all.

The 129-page ``Jobs for Florida'' bill, slated for a Senate vote Thursday after a single committee hearing, also could eliminate local regulations on wetlands protection and drainage, as well as give local and state regulators less time than ever to review development plans.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said those provisions were related to creating jobs in the state's stagnant construction industry by cutting back government red tape.

``What we're trying to do is speed up the process so we can get people back to work,'' said Bennett, an electrical contractor.

Diana Ferguson, staff attorney for the Florida Association of Counties, predicted that the people who will get the most work out of the bill are lawyers. She warned that it would generate lots of lawsuits and put local governments at risk of violating federal pollution laws.

She also questioned why such a large change in government policy was slipped into an unrelated bill with little chance for opponents to question its provisions.

``It's terrible,'' agreed Rick Tschantz, staff attorney for Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission.

The bill (SB 1752), which also addresses such issues as sales taxes on boats and the purchase of industrial machinery and includes tax breaks that could add up to $187 million for space, high-tech and film industries, was introduced on Feb. 28. It was approved by the Policy and Steering Committee on Ways and Means last week by a vote of 22-2 and shipped to the full Senate.

Despite the concerns expressed by local governments and such environmental groups as Audubon of Florida, ``nothing in this bill repeals any local or state environmental protection,'' said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, the bill's original sponsor. ``Rather, the bill simply seeks to speed up the process of review, so that . . . government doesn't stand in the way.''

One provision in the bill says any project involving up to 40 acres would no longer need any local or state environmental permits, so long as the plans were signed and sealed by a professional engineer.

``A lot of subdivisions and strip shopping centers would fall under that'' 40-acre limit, Tschantz said. But bill supporter Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, a contractor, said it just means ``the governmental entities are honoring the professionalism of those who submit the plans.''

Another section says any permit must be approved or denied within 30 days or it will be automatically issued. That's likely to mean every permit will get an automatic yes, which ``would mean choking up the system with unintended administrative challenges with those permits,'' warned Ernie Barnett, a lobbyist for the South Florida Water Management District.

When state Department of Environmental Protection officials said no one could give the thousands of permit applications they receive a fair review in such a short time, Bennett was unsympathetic. If the DEP can't review every permit in less than a month, he said, ``we will be looking for different people to run the DEP.''

The bill also says any county that wants to issue its own wetland permits rather than relying solely on the state -- as Hillsborough County does -- must take over all of the state's permitting duties by 2011 or stop doing any permitting at all.

Anonymous said...

Florida's economy reminds me of those sinkholes in Orlando...everything looks fine on the surface and the next day your local Porsche dealership is sixty feet below the street. Everything that held you up seems to have drained away.

In Florida, greedy speculators and their paid enablers have siphoned off the support. It matters little that my own home is (for now) on firm ground. Brickell Avenue indulges in the patently false distinction between homeowners qua homeowners (that's lawyerspeak for "as") and homeowners as taxpayers. Even if one were to grant his absurd premise based on his faulty assumptions, these same individuals still are left with the bills for other people's greed. This happens when it comes time to ante up at tax time for a diminished tax base, to remediate the environmental and social damage, to deal with the now structural unemployment derived from a development-driven economy, the increased need for social services, the cuts in education, the shrinking attractiveness of Florida as place to live, and on and on.

I live in California, and we're probably even worse off, albeit for more diverse reasons.

Even if my home value dropped less than other people's, it doesn't mean I won't be paying much more in other ways. I already am. We've also been reminded of two essential lessons: a home is worth only what you can get for it (now that you cannot borrow against it). And cash-starved counties and states will gladly look anywhere for the next nickel of revenue. So Brickell needs to drop the false distinction and recognize that despite what Ayn Rand and her altar boy Alan Greenspan said, we're in this together.

Anonymous said...

So EOM absolves itself of having to come up with any progressive planning idea until after some "level the playing field" event, which you think Amendment 4 will be? You prefer to lock in discredited comp plans rather than fight for progressive planning because you find the fight tedious? Cry me a river. Go set up another straw man to knock down, while others think UPWARDS of one step into the future. You don't need deep pockets to fight for progressive planning, you just need a voter registration card and a keyboard. Too bad I've never read a progressive planning idea on this site. Amendment 4 is 1000 steps backward.

Anonymous said...

So EOM wants to wait until after "federal and state level financial regulations of mortgage pools and subsequent securitization to good development policies" before raising the level of public discourse on planning from "wait, wait!" to "what will our kids' world look like? What jobs will they have? How will they get to work?"

sparky said...

anyone care to speculate on the odds that the two anon posts above this one were written by the same person? i must just be wired the wrong way: i can't understand how anyone can look at what has happened in this state and say the answer is "more of the same."

Jill said...

I'm with you, Sparky, defies all logic. But Florida has never been known for its logic.

miaexile said...

I used to think Hurricane season was the most dangerous time of year in Florida but clearly the most dangerous time of year in Florida is when the state legislature is in session. Can someone remind me of one good thing that has come out of this body of corrupt and evil people in TLH in recent years? Florida needs to wake up and look to the future - and the future is not the construction industry.

Anonymous said...


But if Amendment 4 passes and a community wants to improve its planning, say by allowing more mixed-use or clustering development around corridors with transit, it will require the re-education of the entire city. If you think progressive planning is an EASY sell to voters, you haven't met your average Florida voter.

So bad planning requires no effort, just lock in the status quo, but good planning would require the most change-discouraging political process yet devised, the referendum. Remind me how that is good for residents of Florida?

Procedure is the refuge of those with no substance.

Jill said...

Please expalin in detail how amendment 4 will result in more of the same.
If what you are saying is true, the Florida Home Builders Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce and all the the supporters of Floridians for Smarter Growth like Wal-Mart, Publix and US Sugar would not be frothing at the mouth at the prospect of it passing.

Anonymous said...

Umm, let's see, in detail, ok, Amendment 4 requires a referendum for any comp plan change, so it promotes no change, which is an other way of saying more of the same discredited 1950s planning that most comp plans embody. Jill, I challenge you to explain how Amendment 4 results in NOT more of the same.

Jill said...

It promotes no change?
Yes it does. It promotes change from the status quo of developers guiding growth through requested land use changes rather than local officials being held to their adopted land use plans.
We haven't gotten into this mess through stagnation, but through mutation.

sparky said...

standing alone, your point about process contains a grain of truth, but like all good propaganda, that grain of truth is irrelevant in this context. amendment 4, like any other exercise in participatory democracy, cannot guarantee good results, and in that sense you are correct. however, that point is simply not relevant because when weighed against the status quo, it offers at least the opportunity to curb some of the more destructive practices in the state. when the existing system has churned out nothing but riches for private interests and dystopia for the general public, it is disingenuous to cavil at process changes to that system.

alternatively, to see the hollowness of your objection, one need only look at this state and ask whether the general public could have done a worse job than the existing system. to ask that question is to answer it.

Anonymous said...

Jill, why do you want local officials held to existing comp plans? What exhaustive study has led you to believe that existing comp plans are the best of all possible plans?

Sparky, why do you assume that anyone who disagrees with you is spouting propaganda? Aren't other people allowed to have sincere beliefs that they arrived at by independent thought?

You write that "it offers at least the opportunity to curb some of the more destructive practices." What "it" are you talking about? The point about procedure, the status quo, participatory democracy in general? Amendment 4 promotes direct democracy as an end in itself, but you admit it does not "guarantee good results," ie it does not have any direct connection to improved policy outcomes.

Amendment 4 is a cynical measure that assumes the stupidity and impotence of voters, but asserts that they would be happier if they felt "empowered" even if they end up voting for the same sprawl -- direct democracy as opiate of the masses. And the "leaders" behind Amendment 4 cloak themselves in this populism because they never cared about progressive planning policy and improved outcomes in the first place, they just hate change.

Excuse me if I actually want to make the world a better place, not just give more people a voice in making in mediocre.

Anonymous said...

Join the Chamber of Commerce. Make the world a better place.

Jill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jill said...

The it, I was referring to is Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment 4. I haven't admitted anything.
I don't know how long you have been living in Florida and how long you have been paying attention to the comprehensive land use process, but I have been doing it for long enough to tell you that every Evaluation and Appraisal Report results in millions of dollars spent on special studies, workshops, meetings, tweaking of the comprehensive plan that leaves local officials smiling and congratulating themselves on what a fine job they have just done planning for their community's future. Then, two weeks later, while the ink is barely dry on the newly adopted comprehensive plan (or roadmap for future growth) they are considering a proposal to amend somebody's land use and adopt a change to the comprehensive plan they just adopted.

I don't believe that our current comprehensive plans are the best, most environmentally friendly, efficient or practical. In fact, I believe many of them are completely thoughtless as to how they relate to anything but the interests of a few landowners within their jurisdiction. But, and my anonymous friend, whoever you are, this is a very big but: under our state's Burt Harris Act you cannot take away a land use right once it has been granted without compensation to the landowner. The only way we would have to fix current comprehensive plans would be to completely eliminate all existing land use rights and start from scratch and I guarantee you, that will never happen. How many landowners do you think would be standing around with their hands in the air wanting to have their property down planned? So there only thing left to say and that is this: we have already spent millions of dollars and had years of "professional" advice and it has taken years of supposed planning coming up with what we've got. WORK WITH IT.
Florida has basically been building a car with every county and town designing its own model - no wonder the parts don't fit.
We just can't continue to increase density on the open spaces we have left and rationalize it by saying that we haven't got right yet.