|By JAMES MILLER and JIM SAUNDERS |
Originally Published: 20 September 2007
The Daytona Beach News-Journal Staff Writers
TALLAHASSEE -- Friederike Holt thinks giving voters a greater say in development decisions might be one way to keep Central Florida from becoming, as she puts it, a "cement jungle."
That's why she signed a petition to put the proposed Florida Hometown Democracy constitutional amendment on the November 2008 ballot.
So when the Ponce Inlet retiree got a letter from former House Speaker John Thrasher last week asking her to revoke her signature and telling her the amendment would let big developers "ruin Florida's scenic beauty," she wasn't confused.
She was mad.
"I think it's terrible," Holt said this week. "You know they're trying to turn it around like we're all a bunch of idiots, that we don't know what we're signing."
Thrasher's letter was part of a wide-ranging effort by business groups to try to scuttle the Florida Hometown Democracy amendment.
If passed, the amendment would require voter approval of changes to local land-use plans that serve as blueprints for development.
During a debate Wednesday in Tallahassee, Thrasher warned that the amendment would hurt economic development in the state.
"It's about stopping growth in the state of Florida," said Thrasher, a lobbyist whose high-powered list of clients includes The St. Joe Co., one of the state's major landowners.
But the tactics of Thrasher and a group he helps lead, Save Our Constitution Inc., are drawing criticism.
In a letter asking voters to revoke petition signatures, Thrasher contended the amendment would lead to higher property taxes, allow "big developers" to ruin the state's beauty and lead to increased utility bills.
Thrasher defended the letter. He said, for example, deep-pocketed developers could finance campaigns to get voter approval of land-use changes if the amendment passes.
But Ross Burnaman, a lawyer who has helped lead the Florida Hometown Democracy effort, called the letter "despicable."
Burnaman said the proposed amendment is designed to increase public involvement in planning decisions. Florida Hometown Democracy backers have long argued that developers have too much say in local growth decisions.
"The amendment is real, real simple," Burnaman said. "It just involves giving yourself a vote on growth."
To get on the 2008 ballot, Florida Hometown Democracy will need 611,000 verified petition signatures before Feb. 1. As of Wednesday, the state had received about 331,000 signatures.
But major businesses in the state hope to block Florida Hometown Democracy from ever reaching the ballot.
The Save Our Constitution group, which records show is headed by the president of Associated Industries of Florida, is seeking the petition revocations.
Meanwhile, a separate group called Floridians for Smarter Growth is taking a different approach.
It has proposed a competing constitutional amendment, hired away petition gatherers from Florida Hometown Democracy and also urged businesses not to allow petition-gathering efforts on their properties.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce is helping lead Floridians for Smarter Growth, which has received contributions from groups such as home builders and the sugar industry.
"We would not be doing our job if we didn't do everything in our power to keep them (Florida Hometown Democracy) off the ballot," said Mark Wilson, the chamber's executive vice president.