FL legislators bigfoot local government to benefit big-money developers

March 25, 2021 7:00 am

Residents of The Villages help oust Sumter County commissioners who raised their taxes rather than impose impact fees on new residents, possibly inspiring a backlash by the Florida Legislature: Credit: Stock photo via Gerry Images

Florida is an exceptional state in so many ways. We’re the only state where iguanas pop up in people’s toilets. We’re the only one where the list of state park jobs includes “mermaid.” And we can boast that we’ve got not one, not two, not three, but four Bigfoots (Bigfeet?).

Other states have, at best, only one of the hairy yeti. But Central Florida is home to the elusive Bardin Booger, South Florida marks the stomping grounds of the odiferous Skunk Ape, and Jackson County, in the Panhandle, has its Ocheesee Pond Wild Man.

The fourth one? You can find that one in Tallahassee — it’s the Florida Legislature.

The first three are spotted more often on T-shirts and bumper stickers than in real life. But the fourth one is all too real, because there’s nothing our legislators love more than bigfooting local government.

Florida Capitol, Colin Hackley

Does a city want to ban the sale of a particular type of sunscreen that may be bad for a coral reef? Legislators will bigfoot them and say no way. Does a local government want to ban plastic bags? No can do, say our lawmakers. Do some municipal do-gooders want to protect their trees from being chopped into kindling? Boom! Down comes the legislative bigfoot, blocking them.

One of the things the Tallahassee Bigfoots have tried repeatedly to stomp on is local government imposing impact fees on new development. They’re at it again this year.

“Two bills before lawmakers in Tallahassee, Florida House Bill 337 and Senate Bill 750, would put new restrictions on the ability of Florida counties and cities to increase the one-time fees intended to offset the impact of new homes and businesses on government services, including schools, roads and public safety,” the Orlando Sentinel reported this week.

I guess we should be grateful the Bigfoots are not trying to eliminate the fees entirely. No, the intention here is to tie the hands of local governments, making sure they can’t get the money they need. The alternative is to raise taxes, and you know how seldom that happens here.

Impact fees are a time-tested way to make growth pay for itself, not unlike drivers using a toll road being required to toss coins in a basket to cover the cost of all that asphalt. The reason is obvious: New residents buying new homes will need new roads, sewers, schools, libraries, fire stations, police, and so forth.

Why not make those new residents pay for that, instead of charging everyone?

Right now, local governments can charge builders and developers impact fees that will pay for all kinds of government-supplied services needed to keep up with the increasing population.

And they’re allowed to raise impact fees to match the needs of the community, so long as they get a certified expert to study the impact and show it’s necessary. The law requires a match of a dollar from impact fees to a dollar for the cost of a new library or school or park.

“Whenever new impact fees are raised, they’re being used to provide new infrastructure for all the new residents,” David Cruz of the Florida League of Cities told a legislative subcommittee last week. “Local governments cannot run impact fees at a profit.” Both his organization and the Florida Association of Counties oppose the bills.

The problem is, Florida’s homebuilders don’t like impact fees. They regard them as an unwelcome intrusion on their operations, not unlike building inspectors. Never mind that a 2003 Brookings Institution study found that impact fees are a more efficient way to pay for schools and sewers and other infrastructure than taxes, and that the fees have no discernible impact on overall job growth.

Biologists who have studied the breed say the Tallahassee Bigfooters pay very close attention to what the homebuilders like and don’t like, because the construction and real estate industries make a lot of campaign contributions.

Thus, we have these two bills. The changes that are being proposed in them are both subtle and brutal.

The bills would narrow the definition of “infrastructure” so that impact fees could not be used to buy police cruisers, fire trucks, and emergency medical services vehicles. No libraries and library books, either. Sorry, kids, you’ll just have to watch whatever’s on HBO Max or Disney-Plus. Reading is bad for your brain, anyway.

The original version of both bills also called for capping impact fee increases at a mere 3 percent a year, even though development in Florida seldom increases at such a meager rate. The Senate version has dropped that cap, but still requires staggering any increases over a period of years.

Dan Daley
Dan Daley

Those provisions are designed to prevent what Rep. Dan Dailey, D-Coral Springs, called “egregious increases” as local governments desperately try to catch up with their regions’ sprawling growth. Rep. Dailey, by the way, explained that he knows all about this because he works for a builder, 13th Floor Homes.

I watched a couple of legislative hearings on these bills. When I watched a House subcommittee discussion of HB 337, I was struck by how many of the subcommittee members said they were totally on-board with this bill, despite its effect on their constituents, and also how many, like Dailey, happened to have jobs in development-related businesses.

Affordable housing and other laughable arguments

Gulf Breeze, up in the Panhandle, was the first Florida community to charge developers an impact fee for new construction, according to Jane West of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a pro-planning group. The fee was designed to pay for a new park in the area where the development occurred.

Builders got it tossed out via a court decision, West said. So much for innovation.

The fees really took hold after the passage of the Growth Management Act of 1985, according to retired Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council expert Jim Beever.

This was during a glorious era in which Florida officials attempted to toss a lasso around the state’s runaway development and wrangle it toward places where it would be less likely to do damage. We even had a state agency, the Department of Community Affairs, checking over local government growth plans to make sure they met certain standards.

That era ended shortly after Rick Scott became governor, when he and the Legislature disbanded the state’s planning agency. Scott also repeatedly vetoed state funding for the state’s regional planning councils. Planning? Who needs that? Just build wherever! It’ll be fiiiiine!

So now the local governments all have to fend for themselves, trying to cope with whatever the developers throw at them — and lately the developers have been throwing a ton.

One of the few Florida industries that has thrived during the coronavirus pandemic has been development, aided by historically low interest rates and a huge influx of new residents from other states.

Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder some local governments say they need to jack up their impact fees.

Ironically, some of the local governments that had planned to phase in impact fee increases — Hillsborough County, for instance — are talking about hitting builders with big hikes right now because of this new legislation. They’re worried about the House and Senate Bigfoots blocking them from doing it later.

Developers have complained to legislators that such big increases cause them problems in “predictability.” In other words, they weren’t planning on having to pay such big fees right now when their business is booming and they’re making big profits. Somehow this argument failed to win my sympathy, but I’m not a legislator.

Meanwhile, in the same breath, the developers say they’re not paying these big increases after all. They’re passing the cost of the impact fees along to their buyers — which is exactly what is supposed to happen. Those are the folks who need all the new services, so they should pay for them, right?

To the legislators pushing these bills, making those folks pay is a bad thing, because it will push the cost of a new house higher.

Joe Gruters

“We’re going to have a housing crisis in terms of affordable housing,” the Senate sponsor, Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota (and chairman of the Florida GOP) told a committee Wednesday.

I admit I laughed when I heard Gruters and other legislators harrumphing about how impact fees threaten affordable housing.

You know what’s the biggest threat to Florida affordable housing? Florida legislators.

Lawmakers have repeatedly raided the state’s affordable housing assistance fund to pay for other things, usually leaving behind a cupboard as bare as any in a fairy tale. They’re planning to do it again this year!

Incidentally, Beever said that when the Florida housing market cratered in 2008, a lot of local governments generously backed off the impact fees they were charging. The developers who benefited, he said, did not lower the price tag on the houses they built and sold.

The Villagers are revolting

While legislators were complaining about Hillsborough and other counties that want to jack up impact fees, they somehow failed to mention the recent uproar in Florida’s famous retirement mecca The Villages.

That fast-growing area “is Exhibit A of a place where growth has not been paying for itself,” West told me.

In 2019, the members of the Sumter County Commission decided they needed to pay for lots of things caused by the growth of The Villages — more law enforcement, ambulance services, and schools, as well as a future regional roadway network.

They voted to hike taxes by 25 percent, their first increase in 14 years.

Residents of The Villages, “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown,” said they completely understood and were fine with — Ha! I’m kidding, of course.

The Villages in Central Florida, bridge over SR 44. Iamorangelightning – own work by the uploader. Photographed at the scene). Wikipedia.

Actually, the Villagers were so angry they were ready to break out the torches and pitchforks and maybe a guillotine. Why, they demanded, did the taxpayers have to foot the bill for all this, when it should come from the pocket of the developer? There were complaints that the commissioners didn’t want to disturb the developer’s pocket because that’s where they lived.

Come the 2020 elections, three of the commissioners who voted for the tax increase lost their seats. They were replaced by a trio who promised to instead use impact fees to cover the costs of keeping up with new growth. The challengers’ margin of victory wasn’t even close.

According to West, thwarting this upcoming Sumter County impact fee hike is the real motivation behind this latest attempt to bigfoot local governments.

Sure enough, one of the co-sponsors of the original House version of the impact fee bill was Rep. Brett Hage, R-Oxford, who (surprise, surprise!) lists his occupation as “residential development.” According to the Villages News, financial disclosure documents show that in 2019 he earned more than $288,000 from The Villages and its contractors.

In case you were wondering about the care and feeding of a Tallahassee Bigfoot, there’s your answer.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.