Photo Credit: Eileen Escarda
Tickled at the memory of her subterfuge, Lesley Blackner recounts how she went under her married name to a real estate development trends conference in West Palm Beach in October.
Amid the real estate slowdown, as she tells it, the mood was hardly ebullient. Then, one speaker, in the course of remarks on land regulation in Florida, touched on an issue dear to Blackner's heart.
The proposed Florida Hometown Democracy constitutional amendment, the speaker said, was the "worst idea I've ever heard."
"They all just stood up and started clapping," recalls Blackner. "It was the only time I ever saw any kind of energy in the room. You know what? It was interesting to see the kind of reaction because I haven't seen how angry they are. It's like the end of the party as far as they're concerned. They've had it so good for so long."
Critics say Blackner ignores why we have representative democracy and would create land planning based on emotion rather than deliberation.
Blackner, who makes veins throb in the foreheads of developers across Florida, conceived that "worst idea," which for all the ire it rouses still has only a quarter of the voter signatures it needs to get on the 2008 ballot. Blackner's Hometown Democracy amendment calls for citizens to vote directly on whether to make changes in local "comprehensive" land-use plans, the binding plans that determine what kind of development goes where. Blackner's planning-by-plebiscite would revolutionize decision-making about growth in Florida, giving voters a veto over everything from new convenience stores to subdivisions. Whether it ever makes it onto the constitutional ballot, it already has inspired miniversions in a number of Florida cities.
Blackner, 45, seems the kind given to tilting at windmills, the one in college who rails against the status quo while everyone else wants to go out for a beer. A lawyer, she alternates between philosophical musings, such as "growth isn't even defined," and rhetorical bomb-throwing. She calls the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the state Legislature "the evil twins." Legislators are "those creeps." She has a sound bite -- "We have government of the developer by the developer and for the developer" -- but acknowledges a need for a more polished appearance as she ramps up her speaking engagements. "I've got to get my hair done and learn to do makeup," she says.
Born in Japan, Blackner came to Florida at age 5 when her naval aviator father was transferred here. Her mother was a mild-mannered Southerner, and Blackner bemoans not having an assertive role model, once saying on a law panel that "I didn't start to think for myself until I was 35." A University of Florida law grad, she worked for a state appellate judge for five years in Daytona Beach, where she despaired of finding a husband -- "it's all bikers" -- and trembled at the thought of being an unmarried law clerk at 40.
She returned to Jacksonville, but met her future husband, Richard Stone, also a lawyer, at a chance meeting in a Philadelphia restaurant. They have two sons, Clayton, 10, and Bennett, 3, and live in Palm Beach, a block from the ocean, in a 1924 home valued at $1.5 million -- a modest valuation by the standards of one of the wealthiest municipalities in America.
Building block: "It's going to positively slow down the economy," says Wayne Bertsch, political affairs director at the Florida Home Builders Association.
Photo: Ray Stanyard
Asked whether her home on a barrier island would exist if the land-use controls she advocates had been in place when it was built, she says, "Maybe there comes a point where you say 'enough's enough.' "
In Palm Beach, she continued environmental and citizen activist pro bono work that she had begun in Daytona. She fought against the Suncoast Parkway in west-central Florida for the Sierra Club. She helped form a group, F.E.A.R., Floridians for Environmental Accountability & Reform, to protest Army Corps of Engineers permitting practices. She says she became increasingly frustrated at how elected leaders ignored residents' wishes, and she came to see Florida land-use regulation as a corrupt system.
Blackner credits two sources with forming her thinking on growth: An essay titled "Is No Growth Also Smart Growth?" by California planner Chris Williamson, and a book, "Better, Not Bigger," by Oregon planner Eben Fodor. Williamson, in an interview, argues that as long as the federal government has a "de facto policy" of population growth through immigration, "a community has a right to self-defense."
In his essay, Williamson writes: "If a community or region refuses to grow, the result may be higher prices, economic displacement and hardship, and dangerous crowded housing in exchange for keeping a desirable quality of life for the 'already landed' middle- and upper-income groups. If the local voters are willing to pay this price, why should planners try to prevent it?"
Fodor's book, meanwhile, argues against what he calls the myths of growth: That it provides needed tax revenue, that it must be stimulated to provide jobs, is inevitable and that communities must grow or die. Blackner echoes his themes, arriving for an interview carrying, in a Bloomingdale's bag, videotapes that expound or share her views. "Six Fairy Tales About Growth in Florida" is one title from F.E.A.R.
Inspired by California counties that require voter approval of major land-use changes, Blackner decided to go even further. She began contemplating a statewide amendment that would allow local voters to approve all comp plans and plan changes.
As her thoughts gelled, she teamed with Ross Burnaman, a Tallahassee lawyer who practices primarily environmental and land-use law. While with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2001, he had been impressed with a presentation Blackner made at a law conference about her fight in Volusia County for sea turtles and against beach driving. "Ross gets at least as much credit. Without Ross, we wouldn't be where we are," Blackner says.
With Blackner's input, Burnaman wrote the amendment in 2003. They co-founded the Hometown Democracy committee. "The plans are not guiding the growth; the growth is guiding the plans," says Burnaman, 49.
The two suffered a setback when the Florida Supreme Court, which must approve the wording of amendments, rejected their initial ballot summary in 2005, invalidating 80,000 signatures they had gathered. The court gave them new life in June on a rewritten summary, overriding the objections of the Florida League of Cities, Florida Association of Counties and Florida School Boards Association.
| | Photo Credit: Ray Stanyard | |
Taking a stand: "It will kill jobs. We should not be running government with bumper-sticker politics," says Florida Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Mark Wilson. The chamber pushed approval of Amendment 3, which requires proposed amendments to get 60% of votes before making it into the constitution. Amendment 3 passed with 58% of the vote last November.
Their amendment is simple and seductive. No more would elected officials have to reconcile opposition to sprawl with opposition to high-density condo canyons. No more would they need to juggle citizen demands for small with a desire to grow the tax base. Voters would allow or stifle growth as they saw fit.
The amendment's simplicity is also dangerous, Blackner's opponents say. Tallahassee lawyer and former Department of Community Affairs Secretary Linda Loomis Shelley, the speaker in October who called Blackner's brainchild "the worst idea I ever heard," says the amendment would allow local voters to nullify state decisions, such as 2005 mandates on school concurrency. She also points out that comp-plan changes can run to hundreds of pages of data and analysis that voters would never see on the ballot.
"Lesley, I'm sure, is an excellent lawyer, and I know Ross is as well," Shelley says, but their plan is "ill-conceived." (Shelley, incidentally, doesn't remember a standing ovation for her criticism of Hometown Democracy. "Maybe a few approving nods," she says. Another person there remembers the speech overall being very well-received -- not just the relatively short portion relating to Hometown Democracy -- and a few people standing to clap.)
Developers, builders and business groups complain that Blackner's idea would halt job creation, school construction and road improvements. Growth would stall as both major and minor land-use plan changes awaited the next referendum. Blackner's handiwork would drive up risk and carrying costs for developers -- with new-home buyers, consumers and businesses paying the price. She ignores why we have representative democracy and would create land planning based on emotion rather than deliberation, they say. Additional consequences: Decision-making gridlock and intercity fights over unpopular uses such as a new jail. Says Wayne Bertsch, political affairs director of the Florida Home Builders Association, Blackner would enshrine "NIMBYism (not in my back yard) in the Florida constitution. They certainly are no-growthers," Bertsch says. "It's going to positively slow down the economy."
Adds Mark Wilson, Florida Chamber executive vice president, "This doesn't have anything to do with your hometown or democracy. This has to with environmentalists using our constitution to shut down jobs."
Terrified of Blackner's idea, builders, developers and others spent $3.1 million to get voters in November to approve Amendment 3, which requires proposed amendments to earn 60% of the ballots cast to make it into the constitution. Designed to thwart Blackner and similar initiatives, it passed 58% to 42%.
All sides agree, however, that 60% is an attainable threshold for Blackner if she gets Hometown Democracy on the ballot. And that's why business groups see their top list of problems now as hurricane insurance, taxes and Lesley Blackner. Though her organization consists of little more than herself, Burnaman and some other volunteers, Florida has a history of rich individuals and out-of-state groups bankrolling signature collections for initiatives. Blackner and Burnaman have used one signature-gathering firm already but "not at the volume we would like," Blackner says.
If they can surmount the signature gap, they're hoping to tap into some perceived public dissatisfaction. A poll for the Leadership Florida group last year found that 52% of respondents felt their local governments weren't managing growth effectively. The poll and the recent election losses of various local incumbents who were seen as pro-growth show an undercurrent of anti-growth sentiment in Florida, says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.
If Blackner finds a benefactor willing to fund a signature-gathering firm, "the chances of it getting on the ballot are very strong, and if it goes on the ballot, it will take a lot of money to defeat it," MacManus says.
Blackner lacks the support of two prominent environmental groups, Audubon of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida. Blackner suggests both are in the pockets of developers. Both dismiss the aspersion.
Charles Pattison, 1000 Friends' president, says the piecemeal referendums envisioned in Blackner's amendment would work against comprehensive solutions, undermine legislative support of the state's growth-control law and lead to NIMBYism on schools, landfills, affordable housing and infrastructure improvements.
Every growth decision, he says, would hinge on who has the most money to spend -- usually developers -- and become "a public relations campaign. Who has the best sound bites will probably be the one who gets approved."
| | Hometown rule: Tallahassee lawyer Ross Burnaman co-founded the Hometown Democracy committee with Blackner and wrote the ballot amendment in 2003.
Photo: Ray Stanyard
"Even if we don't make the '08 ballot, that doesn't mean Hometown Democracy is dead." -- Ross Burnaman
Charles Lee, Audubon's advocacy director, says, "At first blush, this is a really easy petition to sign. I signed it." But Audubon, after lengthy discussions, decided Hometown Democracy raised too many questions without solid answers. For instance, what would prevent cities from bundling objectionable projects with environmentally worthy changes in single up-or-down votes? Audubon also worries that the amendment would channel developers, anxious to avoid a comp-plan referendum, into building projects in areas with already vested development rights, projects that could be environmentally worse and based on dated practices and poor designs. Comp plans in much of rural Florida allow one housing unit per five acres and, says Lee, "the sprawl of ranchettes environmentally is one of the worst land-use patterns you can have."
Blackner does have the backing of some local Audubon chapters, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club's Florida chapter and Save the Manatee Club. Her allies also include the strongly anti-immigration Floridians for a Sustainable Population, a Pompano Beach-based group that opposes amnesty for illegal aliens and favors cutting U.S. legal immigration by 75%. Its president, Joyce Tarnow, says Florida's population already is 10 million to 11 million people higher than can be sustained. Hometown Democracy is a tool for curbing overdevelopment, she says.
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Her group's website talks about discouraging in-migration by considering instituting an income tax and also advocates eliminating "pro-natalist" federal and state policies such as per-child tax credits after two children.
As Blackner sees it, immigration and migration make accommodating growth a Sisyphean task for Florida cities. "There's a finite supply of land; there's an infinite amount of population growth. The cost of living keeps going up. The cost of housing keeps going up because the population supply never stops," she says. "The more crowded an area gets, the more services it requires, the more taxes it requires, the more poor people you have. Listen, states that have stabilized their population tend to have a higher per capita income. What's Florida want for itself, to be the Wal-Mart of America, just lots of poor people?"
At their present rate, with 150,000 signatures, Blackner and Burnaman won't reach the 611,009 signatures they need by Feb. 1 to make the 2008 ballot. As it is, Blackner has provided $289,688 of the $406,415 contributed to her cause. "I'm at the end of my money," she says. "We need divine intervention.
"The place looks like hell and is getting worse. We've been told growth is inevitable. It's just like the sun coming up in the morning. It has to be this way. But no, it doesn't have to be this way," Blackner says. "Somebody has to have the courage to say things have to change. And I don't see any of our elected officials with the balls or the vision to say we don't want the Florida they're building for us. We don't want it."
ON THE WEB:
Florida Hometown Democracy
: floridahometowndemocracy.com Florida Chamber of Commerce
: Hometown Democracy counsel Ross Burnaman and opponent Patrick Slevin debated the proposed amendment, "A Discussion: NIMBY-ism," in the February 2004 issue of the Florida Bar Journal available online at floridabar.org. Search the site's Florida Bar Journal archives for February 2004 then look for the two pieces titled "A Discussion: NIMBY-ism."