There’s legal precedent to slow growth

Robert Olsen


Vilano Beach

It is time for St. Johns County leaders to act on a plan to slow the frenzied pace of residential development. We see consequences of inaction daily. Plans for congestion-relieving road projects remain unfunded — actual construction being uncertain and, at best, years away. County budgets are stretched to serve a growing population, necessitating cuts to service levels.

Getting a handle on unbridled growth requires reaching beyond simplistic and dismissive statements, such as the one reported in this paper to have been made by County Commissioner Henry Dean at a recent meeting of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce:

“We’re going to have growth. If anybody thinks we’re not going to have growth or we can adopt some rule or ordinance or law to stop growth, that ain’t going to happen. We cannot have a wall between Duval and St. Johns counties and give people day passes to come down and be tourists.”

Perhaps its unfair to single out Mr. Dean, since years of county inaction on growth management predate his election to the commission. However, he is the commissioner with the law degree and should be aware that the constitutional basis for growth controls was established over 30 years ago in a landmark federal court case.

As with St. Johns County today, the California city of Petaluma was experiencing rapid population growth outpacing the expansion of roads, schools and utilities needed to serve it. In response, the city adopted a plan limiting its growth rate to manageable levels. For a five-year period only 500 residential building permits would be issued annually, and they would be distributed on a point system conforming to the comprehensive plan. Added points were given to developments that included housing affordable to buyers of moderate incomes.

The constitutionality of these actions was challenged by a coalition of home builders in Construction Industry Association, Sonoma County v. City of Petaluma. Petaluma prevailed. Its growth management plan was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court in 1975, which ruled that the city had the right to limit and control the numerical extent, aesthetic quality and geographical location of its own growth. A subsequent appeal by the home builders to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied review the following year, setting the constitutional foundation for growth management across the U.S. The court findings emphasized the presence of a comprehensive plan and, equally important, the adherence to that plan.

News that growth controls have passed constitutional tests and been have put into use in smart-growth initiatives elsewhere in the U.S. seems to have been slow in arriving in St. Johns County. Our county leaders can catch up by:

n Mustering the political will to move forward on a Compressive Plan for managed growth, where new development is firmly tied and limited to the added infrastructure and provision of services needed to support it.

n Transmitting the plan for state review, as required under Florida Statutes.

n  Adopting the plan and resolving to make subsequent land use, zoning, subdivision and permitting actions in accordance with that plan.

n  Stopping the seemingly too-routine practice of processing site-specific Comprehensive Plan amendments to accommodate non-conforming developments.

As we all experience daily traffic snarls and see the rich natural beauty and habitat of our county being rapidly scraped away for new housing tracts, prevailing sentiment still seems to see benefits in continued growth and development of St. Johns County.

But it needs to be smart growth. If this can’t happen, voters could become much more reactionary to any level of population growth. One example is Boulder, Colorado, where a popular t-shirt slogan proclaims “Boulder Is Full — Go Away!”

Olsen is a retired architect, urban planner, and former senior official of the U.S. Department of Commerce. He resides on Vilano Beach.