It's been 15 years since I've driven the length of the state at one time. Mostly I'm anxious to stay away from driving the Florida Turnpike and Interstate and its traffic jams. Today I can report from the length of 95 and detours across to the US 1 along the way: Florida suffered greatly under the pressure of the late, great building boom. Sprawl swept away the farmlands of West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie. All the way to Jacksonville, what replaced open space was poor quality of development built around the Interstate and major arterial roadways.
The built landscape looks the same for a reason. The conversion of the Florida landscape wasn't about "what the market wanted": What you see through your car windshield is what showered the steadiest rain of commissions and fees and compensation to speculators and the supply chain of the construction industry. It was never about growth management.
Miami is the epicenter of the housing boom and bust for a simple reason: this is where politics organized to mesh local zoning decisions to building permits and finance, isolating people from regulations nominally intended to protect the public interest. Drive the Florida Turnpike to Port St. Lucie and the scale of the Ponzi scheme is amazing. And it goes on. St. Augustine used to be a corner of old Florida. Now it is just another corner for sale. On the road in from 95, people have lined for sale on the grass swale their SUV's, jet skis, and boats. It's personal deleveraging from the housing bust: another form of "Cash For Gold".
This is what makes Gov. Crist and the Florida legislature's recent actions so hard to accept. The builders and Growth Machine advocates are using the economic crisis to further isolate the public from the costs of growth imposed by an economic formula that is fully, entirely discredited. The new laws that advertise making it easier for "jobs" to be created: this model of growth is entirely dependent on bringing thousands of new residents to Florida every day. How are the trillions in "fiscal stimulus" going to revive demand when the model only worked as an artificial construct?
The final controversy of Crist's short term as governor is about to unroll: whether he will allow to pass into law another measure the development lobby wants: to take away the power of appointed boards for the state's water management districts and vest that authority in executive management. It is a big issue in St. John County, where citizens are still riled up (unlike South Florida) to protect their wetlands, rivers and natural resources, and water supply from being bartered away for political power. They want to make the deal today because the Growth Machine is increasingly worried about a public backlash brewing in the simmering recession deepening to something else. Charlie Crist has already pandered to the constituency he expects to propel him to the US Senate and, maybe, to the White House.
But who knows what can happen when the slumbering giant awakes. Just drive the length or across Florida; from the I4 corridor and up to the Panhandle is no different: Florida has been sold down the river. Voters are waking up, and the Old Guard is determined to secure its future privileges and vest its rights before they are all tossed from office. Come to think of it, if Gov. Crist had to drive the length of the state and not fly by, maybe he too would see that turning cash-to-gold isn't such a good business model after all.