Florida legislators keep us in the dark about allowing developers to light up the night
Our elected officials change the rules to benefit their businesses even when it hurts the state we hold dear
Big Cypress night. Credit: Aaron Umpierre
Have you ever been to a place in Florida that was so dark that the sky seems crowded with stars? I have, and more than once.
Probably the darkest campsite I’ve ever visited was at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. The first night was cloudy and it was so dark it was like we were trapped inside a black velvet painting of Elvis’ hair. By the next night, the sky had cleared and what we could see was a revelation. There seemed to be enough stars visible for a whole decade of stargazing.
Another camping spot that came close was Highlands Hammock State Park, outside Sebring. There, the darkness was lit up by delightful clouds of fireflies.
Yet those are not nearly as dark as Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park near Yeehaw Junction. In 2016, it was recognized as Florida’s first Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, as was a second location, Big Cypress National Preserve.
As a kid growing up during the Space Age, I was more enamored of the stars in the heavens than the ones in Hollywood (although the closest I ever got to space travel was driving a Saturn to Jupiter). I am happy now to find places where you can still see the stars shining brightly.
To me they’re more attractive than all the lit-up streets, suburbs, malls, strip shopping centers, storage warehouses, and parking lots that keep multiplying like the ravenous Tribbles in “Star Trek.” Those manmade objects are turning our natural Florida landscape into one big glowing ball of blah.
So when a former president of the International Dark Sky Association contacted me about our ongoing legislative session, I listened to her concerns.
Diana Umpierre is a former Broward County planner who lives in Pembroke Pines, which brags that it’s “the 10th largest of Florida’s 400+ municipalities.” It’s also so brightly lit that when it comes to stargazing, “it’s horrible!” Umpierre told me.
Yet that’s the future our legislators have in mind for as much of the state as possible, she told me.
And they’re doing everything possible to thwart any opposition.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Tallahassee in 1827, he called it “a grotesque place” that had been “rapidly settled by public officers, land speculators, and desperadoes.”
If Emerson returned now, he’d write, “See previous report.”
These days, instead of buckskins and boots, the desperadoes wear tailored suits and polished wingtips. They’re now called lobbyists for the development industry.
But they’re just as adept at robbing the public of something precious. And they’re on the kind of win streak that would be the envy of every college basketball team in the Sweet Sixteen.
It started in 2011, when then-Gov. Rick “I’m Wearing My Navy Hat Because I’m Going to Sink This State” Scott dismantled the state’s growth management system. It’s continued with nearly every new legislative session. Each year, it seems, our elected representatives produce more bills to give developers the advantage in any legal battle over their plans.
What Umpierre contacted me about was a whole bunch of bills this year. All are aimed at overriding any attempt to stop the sprawl that’s spreading more and more manmade lighting across the dark parts of our landscape.
The bills don’t mention that side effect, any more than they mention the crowded roads and other problems brought by poorly planned growth. If development was regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, we’d at least get a warning: “Ask your doctor if Sprawl is right for you. Side-effects may include the loss of any night sky, more traffic jams, leaky sewer plants, rampant pollution, prolonged toxic algae blooms, record manatee deaths, and raised blood pressure.”
Local governments are usually best at figuring out what kind of development will or won’t work for their own communities. That’s especially true when it comes to protecting certain areas from light pollution — which should be a non-partisan issue, she said.
“When it comes light pollution, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” she told me. “If you live in a rural area, you care about keeping your dark skies dark.”
But the developers don’t care about all that. They just care about one thing: the old do-re-mi.
As a result, developers don’t want to hear any cities or counties voting no on their demands. They want to turn every local government agency into Ado Annie from “Oklahoma!” — unable to say no.
Thus we get legislation such as House Bill 439, filed by Rep. Stan McClain of Ocala, owner of McClain Construction. Its companion, Senate Bill 1604, is sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, CEO of Hartland Homes.
Those builder-sponsored bills, Umpierre said, would end counties’ and cities’ ability to deny a proposed land-use plan change because there aren’t enough roads, schools, or other infrastructure to support the development seeking the change.
Those local governments would be forced to say yes and find some way to pay for all the roads, schools, sewer lines, etc. that will now be needed. How? Remember, two years ago, the Legislature limited their ability to make the developers foot the bill using impact fees. That means you, the taxpayer, will get the bill.
This legislation is even tampering with definitions. These two bills would officially redefine “urban sprawl” as “an unplanned and uncontrolled development pattern.”
That sounds much more benign, don’t you think? Sort of like redefining “dumpster fire” as “an unplanned and uncontrolled source of warmth.”
Putting WD-40 on the tracks
Speaking of dumpsters, several of these measures Umpierre called me about were sponsored by one person, a state senator from St. Petersburg named Nick DiCeglie. He ran a company called Solar Sanitation, which means he’s got a lot of experience with handling hot garbage like this.
In fact, he’s won awards from such champions of the environment as the Florida Home Builders Association and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida. The real estate industry was one of his big campaign contributors.
He’s definitely giving them their money’s worth, to the detriment of the rest of us.
For instance, he filed SB 682, which reduces the time a local government has to approve or deny building permits from 30 business days to nine calendar days. Such a tight deadline “puts local governments under the gun to approve construction without sufficient review,” Umpierre said.
But by far the worst bill he’s backing is SB 540, titled “Local Government Comprehensive Plans.” This time, instead of targeting the cities and counties, this bill and its companion, HB 359, take dead aim at us citizens.
The bill says that anyone who challenges a local government for changing its comprehensive plan at the behest of a developer, and then loses that challenge, can be held liable for the legal bills of the winner. Often these fights wind up drawing in as a party to the suit the developer and his or her expensive legal counsel.
The law now allows the loser to be stuck only with court costs. The price tag for paying for the other side’s high-priced legal talent could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, posing the risk of bankruptcy or worse for daring to defend your home.
I wrote a column about the House version of this bill last month in which I mocked its sponsor, Rep. Wyman “Not a Country Singer” Duggan. He’s actually a Jacksonville development attorney.
The developers’ hostility to the citizenry knows no bounds. There’s even a bill, SB 856, that would prohibit any and every citizen-backed referendum on amending land development regulations. That bill is sponsored by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, who happens to be senior vice president of the Miami Association of Realtors.
Do you notice a pattern here of people in the development industry getting elected and then repeatedly doing favors for themselves and their buddies? The result will be more money for them and more destruction of whatever or whoever opposes them.
“They are just putting WD-40 on the tracks,” said Jane West of the smart-growth group 1000 Friends of Florida. “There will no longer be any brakes.”
West told me she was particularly disappointed that no one — including the outnumbered Democrats — was trying to toss so much as a LEGO brick in the way of these bad bills.
“This will be the death knell for what’s left of growth management,” she said. “You can care about your community, but that only goes so far. You’re not going to risk losing your home and everything else.”
But then West made an observation that struck me as particularly interesting.
Shooting the last muskrat
I first heard this corny joke from my dad years ago, so it’s definitely a dad joke. A man named Amos is a crack shot, so he gets hired to kill animals undermining the local mill. (Note to editor: Please insert “rimshot” sound effect here.)
Every morning, Amos strolls down to the riverbank with his rifle, finds a spot in the shade and settles in to watch the mill. Every evening, he comes back home empty-handed.
One day, a curious friend follows him down to the riverbank to see how things were going. Just as he arrives, he spots a muskrat digging at the riverbank by the mill. Yet Amos doesn’t even have the gun in his hand.
“There’s one!” the friend yells at Amos. “Shoot him!”
Amos gives his friend a disdainful look and replies, “What, and lose my job?”
He knows that once he’s shot all the muskrats, he’d be unemployed.
I thought of that story when West told me the surprising downside to these bills — not for us Floridians in general, but for the sponsors like Duggan who are on the legal side of the development business.
By killing the last avenue for anyone to halt a development, they’re in effect killing off their last muskrat. If all these bills pass, she said, nobody will need to hire any high-priced development attorneys to figure out a way around the obstacles. Any old schmuck could do it.
“They’re making themselves dinosaurs,” she said. “They’re legislating themselves out of a job.”
Of course, that won’t matter to the developers who are sponsoring the other bills. For them it will just be one more way to boost their profits as they wreck the state.
West said there may be one other unintended consequence they will care about.
“If I were an attorney for a local government after this bill passes,” she said, “my advice would be to simply not amend the comp plan.”
Of course, if that happened too often, the Florida Legislature’s next move would be to mandate that cities and counties have to say yes to every request for a comp plan change — or else.
Dark government, not dark skies
When they ran for office, none of the sponsors of these bills mentioned that their purpose was pushing through these changes for their own benefit.
Nobody sent out fliers, bought TV ads, or made speeches saying, “Vote for me, and I’ll make it easier for sprawl to make your life miserable! And stop you from doing a darn thing about it!”
Instead, they promised the voters lower taxes and less government and spouted some of that culture war nonsense that’s being used to distract us from our real problems. But I have to say that I think these folks are a greater danger to our future than any drag queens.
That’s why they’re doing their best to cloak their actions by chipping away at our famous Government in the Sunshine Law. They may not like dark skies, but they clearly despise the sunshine that exposes their sleazy antics.
A responsible thing to do would be to tell you to contact your members of the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate. Then you can tell them you know what they’re up to and you want them to cut it out.
But I’ve always been a fan of what “Animal House” called “a futile and stupid gesture.” So allow me to propose one of those instead.
I say we do a Gofundme to raise the money to buy some really bright lights, the kind you used to see shining over Hollywood at a movie premiere or summoning Batman into action.
Then we position those lights so that they shine straight into the offices of every sponsor of these bills. We’ll bathe these folks in the kind of shine they deserve and refuse to turn them off until they stop trying to make the construction crane our state bird.
That may be the only way we can make sure they’re … illuminated.
Correction: The original version of this column said Sen. Nick DiCeglie runs Solar Sanitation. Florida corporate records show he is no longer an officer with that company.
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