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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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).

Another area that seems to demand attention is housing -- specifically, housing for the thousands of low-paid service employees that staff Orlando's booming tourist trade.

``If we want to maintain that service labor force, we will have to meet their housing needs,'' acknowledges Linda Chapin, a vice-president of the Pioneer Savings Bank in Winter Park and executive director of the Project 2000 task force, an assemblage of local leaders who convened a few years ago to address the region's long-term needs.

At present, there's plenty of housing for middle-class families, as a drive around the area or a look through the Orlando Sentinel's real estate pages reveals. Countless new housing developments, with prices of $75,000 and up, lure the newcomer with such nostalgic come-ons as ``irresistably New England.'' But they're ``way beyond service sector people,'' says Dr. Foglesong. It's difficult to find an apartment for less than $350 to $400 a month, he says.

An alternate view on housing comes from Warren McHone, an economist at the University of Central Florida. He asserts there's probably ``more housing at the lower end here than elsewhere.'' He notes, too, the ``very competitive construction industry here. If there is the slightest profit margin to be made from that construction [low-income housing], it'll be built and be done quickly.''

Abe Pizam, another University of Central Florida economist, points out that one of the shakiest aspects of growth in the Orlando area is its reliance on a single industry -- tourism. He's a specialist on that industry, but says ``I'd be the first to admit that any economythat depends on one product only will be in serious trouble.''

``Fortunately, there's not much residents can do to destroy tourism here,'' he observes, though weather and fluctuating currency exchange rates can have adverse short-term effects. One thing that could make the area less attractive for families, he adds, would be the legalization of casino gambling -- something that has been talked about in Florida for a number of years but has not won voter approval.

A number of high-tech electronics manufacturers have located here in recent years, drawn by the same temperate climate, highway network, and supply of cheap labor that lured Disney 15 years ago. But such companies are still a very small factor locally. High-tech firms provide only about 6 to 7 percent of the jobs in the Orlando area, notes Dr. McHone.

Transportation, housing, and industrial mix are but three elements in a complex pattern of change. ``The rate of growth here, the explosion of growth, and the extent to which they were unprepared for it is unusual, but not that unusual,'' says the ULI's Mr. Porter. Orlando is ``just a well-publicized example of something that's happening in increments in a lot of places,'' he adds.

The changes occurring here, agrees political scientist Fogelsong, ``reflect what's going on broadly in the whole nation.''

And what's going on, he says, is a new industrial revolution -- the decline of heavy industry and the rise of the high-tech and service industries. To his mind, Orlando provides ``a vantage point for seeing just how well this revolution is working.''

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