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Reining in Orlando's runaway growth. After years of aiding development, Florida must manage it

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1986

Orlando, Fla.

Not too long ago it was assumed that if you came from this part of central Florida, ``you either worked in an orange grove or owned one,'' says Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick. A stroll along International Drive, just a few miles from Disney World, Epcot Center, and Sea World shows how far this city has come from that rural past. Every conceivable hotel chain and fast-food franchise, it seems, has staked out a claim here. People who would have been tending groves or picking fruit a few decades ago today are serving up hamburgers to tourists.

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Neatly walled housing developments rapidly materialize on what was once citrus land -- much of it devastated by a series of freezes in recent years. Multi-story hotels rise from flat scrub land. The press of cars and pedestrians associated with all this growth stuns locals, though the traffic is still mild compared to the jams encountered in larger cities to the north and west.

But Orlando may be headed toward truly massive traffic tie-ups, as well as other problems associated with burgeoning development, unless growth is carefully managed. The challenge now, says Mayor Frederick, is ``handling the burdens of growth while maintaining the quality of life that brought us to Florida.''

Growth management is none too engrained a notion in this part of the country, where economic expansion has been pushed for decades.

``I've been impressed by the lack of an organized growth management movement,'' says Richard Foglesong, a political scientist at Rollins College in nearby Winter Park. Part of the reason for this, he thinks, is a general disinclination toward activism. People simply don't move to Florida expecting, or wanting, to get involved in grass-roots political movements, he says.

Dr. Foglesong sees political leaders beginning to rally around the concept of growth management, however. He speculates that the reason for this is not pressure from constituents, but ``concern over how investors are going to vote with their feet'' and move on to other areas if the negative effects of growth here get out of hand.

One such effect is transportation congestion.

``Transportation is the No. 1 issue here now,'' says Mayor Frederick. He recalls that a pollster who did some work for the city commented that he'd never seen such a high level of concern over transportation problems anywhere.

This June, voters will decide whether to approve added tax revenue for the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) -- a 4-cent hike in the gasoline levy and a modest increase in the property tax. The yield would be $650 million for road building. If the referendum fails, says the mayor, ``I don't know what we'll do. But I think [the bill] will be successful.''

City and county governments here have other options for getting some of the funding needed to catch up with growth. One they've seized upon with some fervor is ``impact fees'' for developers. This is a means of assessing the costs of development in terms of additonal roads, sewers, schools, and other services, and requiring that the developer pay his share. It has become a major governmental tool in California and Colorado as well as Florida -- all places that have felt substantial growth pressures, notes Douglas Porter of the Washington-based Urban Land Institute (ULI).