DeGrove was secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs when it was formed in 1985, a state agency created by the Florida legislature. At the time, there was broad recognition by both political parties that Florida's unique quality of life and environment was likely to vanish unless some restraint was imposed by common sense and good planning principles at the state level. From virtually Day One, the agency that John DeGrove led was targeted as an example of over-reaching state authority by developers and speculators.
Nationally, its underlying legislation -- The Growth Management Act -- was hailed as the most forward-thinking effort to responsibly manage and account for growth and development. In the late 1980's, I was an activist in the Florida Keys, learning about the capacity of state law through the Area of Critical State Concern designation application to Monroe County and the requirements of state land use planning that even then had wealthy and influential developers fuming. The Florida Keys were the test tube for land use policies and thresholds like hurricane evacuation time standards. As a result, DCA was set upon by the Great Destroyers from the first-- chipped away and eroded through the influence of special interests and lobbyists. It took an economic calamity to destroy it.
Back then, I believed that voters would come to their senses when overdevelopment in Florida blew up the economy. The storm clouds were on the horizon long before Lehman Brothers collapsed. After all, that was the case in the Great Depression whose children were very much the leaders of the environmental movement at the time: Dagny Johnson, George Kunst, and Grace Maniello in the Keys. In 2010, under the pressure of the withering economic crisis in construction and development-- a crisis largely spurred by over-development that the state agency could have but didn't dare to curtail-- the life accomplishments of John DeGrove were lost to the rage of the Tea Party and the clamor against "bogeymen" like DCA.
In fact, the reverse is true. In key respects, growth management in Florida was a paper tiger. That tiger was useful to the radical right, supported by the Wise Use Movement in the late 1980's, that used Florida as a proving ground for property rights. Their goal-- embraced by Big Sugar and Big Ag-- to push for development wherever and whenever the case could be made and financed that it was only providing "what the free market wants". It is the story of the Keys, of Wellington and Coral Springs, of Orlando and the suburbs of Doral, Sweetwater, West Miami Dade, and Tampa and formerly rural enclaves like Homestead-- where the crack cocaine of the housing boom left a trail of ghost suburbs, crime, and reeling voters who trusted elected officials and now see nothing but destruction in their wakes.
With the perspective of history, from the beginning of DeGrove's time of influence in policies regulating Florida sprawl, it was one step forward and two steps back. Under a Democrat, Governor Lawton Chiles, growth management had a small window of opportunity to regulate the loss of Everglades wetlands to sprawl in Broward County. Its failure set the stage for ascendency of growth-at-any-cost policies of Governor Jeb Bush and, eventually, the collapse of federal resolve too.
DeGrove was as powerful as the political will of legislatures to support laws and rules that had been carefully worked out by that earlier, wiser generation of Florida's leaders. The power of money, even after the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, was too great. In a time of diminished capacity of the mainstream media to investigate and to report, what happened in the inner clock-springs of agencies fated to influence Florida's quality of life and environment were relegated to hotel conference rooms hosting planning events, the rubbing of shoulders and interests, the revolving door between regulated and regulators as though no one cared.
Today, Florida's voters are shell-shocked and misled by arguments that growth management is a "jobs killer". What would they know?
The erosion of federal and state authority to protect our quality of life and environment pushes permitting and zoning decisions straight onto the backs of local officials. It is at the level of local city and county commissions where the Great Destroyers always could use their advantages through a diseased campaign finance system to exert leverage.
All the structures to keep the public good in view were rickety and jerry-rigged and held together by the slimmest of legal thresholds requiring citizen activists to test again and again in lengthy, exhausting and costly administrative court challenges. Now they have been torn down to be replaced by something new, that already looks like what always has been. We see how this works out at the Miami-Dade Urban Development Boundary and the careful planning of the Great Destroyers to again test; searching for the new limits same way tiger sharks use the murk to probe the vulnerability of prey. The extension of the Dolphin Expressway into lands owned by politically influential local power brokers, the exchange of lands and speculation in the Bird Drive Basin and South Miami Dade: these are all concrete examples.
Still, gratitude is owed to DeGrove and to land use planners who attempt to maintain the highest standards of their profession against fraud above their pay grades. Had Governor Rick Scott ever heard of John DeGrove before he bought his way to the Governor's Mansion? Is he even aware of what growth management is, now? DeGrove could tell you if he were still alive: it's gone.