Florida officials search for the 'missing pieces' in plan to manage state's growth

Slightly more than a decade ago, Weikiva Springs Road was a dirt lane that ran for miles along deserted rolling hills about 20 miles north of Orlando. Today the same road is a four-lane highway that serves as the major access for thousands of homes (a few costing more than $1 million), country clubs, shopping centers, and now even a glass-walled, mid-rise office building.

The story of Weikiva Springs Road is a story of much of central and south Florida during the past decade. Florida has grown from the 27th-largest state in the union in 1950 to the 7th largest today, and it is projected to become the 4 th largest by the beginning of the next decade.

About 250,000 people a year move into the state, and they are concentrating around Orlando, in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and along the southeast and southwest coast.

Since the late 1970s, Florida has absorbed more people than any other state, and people are moving in so fast that even the most intensive public improvement projects can't keep up with the pace.

In most places government money is not available to try to keep up with the demand for services. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation is still more than a year away from completing Interstate 75 through central Hillsborough County east of Tampa, but the chief engineer on the project says he doubts if the highway - which is eight lanes in some sections - will be able to handle the expected traffic from all the development already anticipated along it. In Key Largo, southwest of Miami, environmentalists were unable to stop rapid development on the fragile island, even though water must be imported to maintain its population, and pollutants from the man-made structures could damage North America's only coral reef.

Looking at the rows and rows of concrete block homes and aluminum mobile homes, critics of the state's development warn of the dangers of high-rise condominiums built on narrow barrier islands, and they see the state's natural resources drained for development. They say Florida will soon be destroyed, if it hasn't been already.

But John DeGrove, a leading urban planner in the state and now head of Florida's Department of Community Affairs, says the state is not lost, although much stiffer planning and development laws are needed.

''This business about 'paradise lost' is not well founded,'' he says. ''I think we have been putting key pieces (of land-use planning regulations) in place. There are still some key pieces missing, and they may take years to get done.''

He says the public is becoming increasingly aware of the need to control the state's growth, and that this awareness is being translated via voting booths into county commissioners and state legislators willing to enact the laws to protect the state.

Dr. DeGrove says some of the growth-management tools that Florida needs include:

* Better regulations to manage development along the coast. Instead of rules to stop construction once it is proposed, the law should be written to discourage any ideas of development on the coastal island in the first place.

* Stronger laws overseeing local plans - take out the loopholes and put in language that will require growth management instead of merely recommending it.

* Money to back up the laws. The Legislature approved a growth management trust fund to help local governments pay for planning, but it didn't put any money in the fund. The fund needs between $10 million and $20 million a year.

Growth management does not mean stopping development entirely, DeGrove says.

''At its best, a working growth management system can and will separate urban and rural areas in a way that protects open space, farmland, water-recharge areas, wetland, and our sensitive coastal areas, and yet provide the land, density, and infrastructure needed for residential, commercial, and industrial development,'' he says.

There is still plenty of room for more people, he says - even along the southeast coast, where the population already is nearly 4 million.

''Take a helicopter from Martin County and head south (past Miami) and see how much undeveloped land is still there,'' DeGrove says. ''The population there could double by the year 2020, and it's important that we protect that coastal land.''

Plans should not only be in place for new growth, he says, but also for redevelopment. That should include laws that will not allow for rebuilding on barrier islands, which often take the brunt of hurricanes.

''There's going to be a lot of growth, and we have a lot of opportunity to do things right or to do things wrong,'' DeGrove says.

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