Why Aren't They Listening?
Recent decisions by several South Florida governments are some of the most controversial cases of elected officials ignoring the concerns of residents in favor of developers.
It has been some time since any proposed development drew the opposition that the Bahia Mar redevelopment on Fort Lauderdale beach has. We can’t think of any project that was so opposed by residents that they amassed 1,200 signatures, and even called for a moratorium on new development until planners address the traffic problems.
Maybe you need to go back to the 1970s when Boca Raton, alarmed by the rapid high rise development to the south—mainly in Fort Lauderdale—led the voters to pass a density cap, stopped development cold for more than five years until the courts ruled the law unconstitutional. And this was a time when Fort Lauderdale development was just starting; the tall buildings in Broward were mostly confined to the beach. Fort Lauderdale’s downtown was stagnating, and its redevelopment efforts were so stymied that city planners installed tennis courts where old buildings had already been razed—just to give the impression something was happening.
Times change. Fort Lauderdale, and other parts of South Florida, have grown so much, so fast, that residents are resisting new development on the grounds that it is destroying its way of life in some of South Florida’s oldest, and most expensive neighborhoods. The Bahia Mar issue is unusual in that it is public land that is being slated for high rise development at a time when residents have had more than enough development. And these are not just any residents. They are people on the high priced Las Olas Isles, as well as other downtown neighborhoods, who find themselves choked with traffic heading to and from the beach. The four (of five) city commissioners who voted for the project are taking heat, none more so than Bruce Roberts.
Buddy Nevins, whose Broward Beat is one of the most influential blogs in the area, called former police chief Roberts a “pro-developer stooge” for asserting at a meeting last week that high density decreases traffic. His comments infuriated some residents in the City Hall audience who battle traffic daily, Nevins wrote. And the people who live here feel betrayed by elected officials who seem to be approving everything, no matter what the people who voted them in think.
If anything, the situation is worse in Palm Beach County, which still has considerable open land on its western perimeter. That is by design. Almost 20 years ago voters overwhelmingly approved an agricultural preserve for some of the state’s richest farming country, but recent decisions by county commissioners have begun chipping away, permitting development and setting a precedent for more land owners to sell for more growth. It also seems a betrayal to people who live in that low density area, who bought with the understanding that their rural lifestyle would be preserved.
The frustration of those fighting unwanted development in both the Fort Lauderdale beach case and the Palm Beach County agricultural preserve is summed up nicely in this excerpt from a letter last week in the Palm Beach Post. Reader Tom Twyford wrote:
“It is obvious to me, and many others, that the general public has very little voice or influence in the development approval process until it is far too late.
By the time a concerned citizen gets his or her three minutes at the podium, the decisions have basically been made. Developers, and their team of lobbyists and lawyers, are already on a first-name basis with county and municipal leaders, and planning and zoning staff, who more often than not recommend approval of the proposed projects—or generally much of what the developer wants.”
That’s gentle criticism compared to some of those responding behind the shield of anonymity on the Internet. Words such as “fix,” “bribe” and “corruption” are used. We find it hard to believe that any Fort Lauderdale commissioner got enough in campaign contributions from the Bahia Mar developer to buy their vote; we are not so sure about Palm Beach County, which has had some nice scandals involving public officials and crooked real estate deals in recent years.
Move a few miles north and it is a different story, in a situation much more serious than the aforementioned events. Business on both sides of Lake Okeechobee, relating to fishing and tourism, is being destroyed by pollution from discharges from the lake, and angry people are starting to react. Up there, campaign contributions in massive amounts (in one case almost $1 million over several years to a powerful figure) are clearly influencing legislators to vote against the interests of their own neighbors. The money comes from Big Sugar, which, supported by Gov. Rick Scott, has been resisting efforts to sell land south of the lake to store and cleanse the water now being discharged to the east and west, where nature never meant it to flow. This is even after Scott’s puppets on the South Florida Water Management District ignored the intent of voter-approved Amendment One, designed to provide funds for the purpose of Big Sugar land, which scientists agree is the only way to stop the ruinous discharges.
Gold Coast reported last October that the situation is so critical that a prominent citizen (and ex-politician) drew a standing ovation after suggesting to a group in Stuart, which represented almost all business interests, such large campaign contributions should be considered criminal bribes. That, of course, would require some serious investigation, probably by the feds.
If elected leaders continue to ignore, and in the Lake Okeechobee matter, even pervert the will of the people, it may yet come to that. It might be good citizenship to spread that rumor. Just don’t say where you heard it.