February 26, 2015

Land Use Planning

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Growth Management Act of 1985

While Florida’s government has been relatively consistent in implementing policies that correspond with the principles of free markets and limited government, one exception has been in the area of land use planning. As noted earlier, Florida’s population grew substantially from the middle of the 20th century through the mid-1980s, and many Floridians expressed concern about the negative effects of growth. Environmental preservation has always been an issue in Florida, which is blessed with an exceptional natural environment, but more immediate concerns were the fact that development was changing the character of the towns and neighborhoods, and that along with growth came increasing traffic congestion.[1] The response was the passage of the Growth Management Act of 1985.

When the act was passed, most observers thought that its most significant element was the concurrency requirement—that new development would be approved only if the infrastructure to support that development was in place concurrently with the development. While much infrastructure was included, the most binding constraint was on roads. New development could not take place unless the road network was sufficient to handle the additional traffic the development would bring. Concurrency was very popular, both with antigrowth Floridians who thought that a lack of infrastructure would slow growth and with developers. Developers believed that with concurrency in place, local governments would be pressured into funding infrastructure improvements that would support continued growth.[2]

The act required all local governments in Florida to design local comprehensive plans conforming to the act’s provisions, which would then be submitted to Florida’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) for approval. Once approved, local development had to conform to the local comprehensive plan. Plan submissions were staggered, with the earliest ones due in 1990, so the provisions of the act did not actually take effect until those plans were submitted five years or more after the act was passed. Among the plans’ many required elements was a land use map that showed allowable uses of land for an entire jurisdiction. Florida’s Growth Management Act probably made Florida the second most stringent state in terms of statewide land use controls (behind Oregon), so the state’s land use policies are a notable exception to the limited government philosophy that has been characteristic of Florida government.[3]

One of the by-products of the 1985 act was an increase in local government resources devoted to land use planning. Local governments had to add resources to develop their own planning infrastructure to comply with the state mandates, and even though statewide land use planning ended in 2011, the local bureaucracies that were created in response to the 1985 Act remain.

Growth Management in Action

Florida’s Growth Management Act never worked as intended, and after two decades it had critics among both its supporters and its detractors.[4] One surprise in the act’s administration was that when the initial local comprehensive plans were submitted to the DCA for approval, most of them were rejected on the grounds that they did not do enough to limit urban sprawl. This was a surprise for two reasons. First, when the act was passed, the idea was that comprehensive plans would be drawn up locally, and the DCA’s only role would be to see that they conformed to state law. The idea that the DCA would judge whether the plans would be capable of achieving some vague goal like limiting sprawl was not envisioned until it happened. Second, the goal of limiting sprawl was indeed vague. Urban sprawl was mentioned in the act but it was never defined, so whether a plan did enough to limit sprawl was left up to the judgment of the DCA.

The DCA’s sprawl policy was subject to legal challenges, and it had its detractors, but it was supported by those who most wanted to limit growth, and the DCA ultimately prevailed. The effort of local governments to design their plans was costly, partly in terms of resources but also in terms of the local politics involved in reaching an agreeable plan, so local governments did not want to see their plans rejected, putting them through the process again. Eventually, local governments learned what the DCA wanted in their plans and designed them to the DCA’s specifications. While the initial idea was that plans would be locally designed to fit local conditions, the reality was that this was land use planning from the top down, with the state government calling the shots and the local governments doing the work.

One of the hopes of the Growth Management Act’s supporters back in 1985 was that concurrency would require local governments to fund infrastructure, but when the financing did not appear, many jurisdictions had roads that were too congested to legally allow more development, so development was increasingly pushed outside the central core of those jurisdictions to the periphery where roads were less congested, thus creating the very type of sprawl that the DCA said it wanted to prevent. Meanwhile, the DCA’s policies seriously limited the amount of land available for development, which raised the price of land and likely contributed to Florida’s real estate boom and subsequent bust after the year 2000.[5] Supporters of growth management thought the act was not working as it should and pushed for an overhaul. Detractors agreed it was not working and argued it should be scrapped.

The End of Statewide Growth Management

With the election of Rick Scott as governor in 2010, the opponents of statewide growth management won out. One of Governor Scott’s first acts when he was elected was to sign Senate Bill 2156, which abolished the DCA and ended the state oversight of land use planning.[6] Local governments were left to decide for themselves how much land use planning they wanted to do. Legally, Florida found itself in its pre-1985 situation, but in practice, the legacy of statewide land use planning remains. While the Growth Management Act and the DCA are gone, the structure devised to carry out the DCA plans remains. First, the local bureaucracies established to design local plans and enforce their elements often want to continue that same type of land use planning. Second, the 11 Regional Planning Councils (RPCs) that coordinate land use planning within their regions have taken on the agenda that the DCA used to manage. The RPCs were created to coordinate transportation networks within their regions and to facilitate obtaining federal transportation funding, but over time the RPCs have expanded their mission. In 2009 the federal government created the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, and the RPCs have adopted a “smart growth” or “new urbanist” orientation to attract federal dollars and to further the goal of sustainability.[7] The restrictive land use policies that characterized Florida for decades are still promoted by the RPCs. For the same reason that Governor Scott closed down the DCA, Florida’s government should consider also terminating the RPCs, or at least limiting their activities.

Lessons from Florida’s Growth Management Experiment

The design of Florida’s growth management following the 1985 act amounted to central planning for land use. In Florida the DCA designed the central land use plan, and local governments designed their plans to conform to the state’s plan. However, planners do not have sufficient information to determine the optimal use for parcels of land, but market forces do that very effectively.[8] Governor Scott made the right decision when he abolished statewide land use planning, but the vestiges of the old system are still compromising property rights, imposing costs on Florida’s economy, and impeding development. Both the proponents and the opponents of land use planning agreed that, 25 years after it was enacted, Florida’s Growth Management Act was flawed and was not producing the results its proponents had hoped. There is a strong argument for going back now and removing the vestiges of that planning process that still remain, and that hinder Florida’s economy.


[1] Traffic congestion has not improved since the 1985 act was passed. Hartgen, Fields, and Feigenbaum, “21st Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems.” Table 14 ranks Florida the state with the highest highway traffic congestion in the nation.

[2] For a more detailed explanation of Florida’s Growth Management Act, see Randall G. Holcombe, “Growth Management in Action: The Case of Florida,” in Market-Based Strategies for Land Use Planning in the Twenty-First Century, Randall G. Holcombe and Samuel R. Staley, eds. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001): 131–54. The history reported in this section is based on this source.

[3] Two things to note are (1) California has a long history of land use controls at the local level, not statewide, as in Florida and Oregon, and (2) looking at figure 1, Florida’s limited government philosophy might best be dated back to the early 1990s, after the passage of the Growth Management Act of 1985. Figure 1 shows real per capita appropriations peaking in the early 1990s and leveling off since then.

[4] For a discussion of some potential problems, see Randall G. Holcombe, “Growth Management in Florida: Lessons for the National Economy,” Cato Journal 10, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1990): 109–25.

[5] Randal O’Toole, How Smart Growth Makes Housing Unaffordable (Oakland, CA: Independent Institute, 2006). For a discussion of the negative effects of government intervention in housing markets, see also Thomas Sowell, Housing Boom and Bust (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[6] “Florida Governor Abolishes Dpt of Community Affairs,” Platinum Real Estate Associates, June 16, 2011, http://trustplatinum.blogspot.com/2011/06/florida-governor-abolishes-dpt-of.html.

[7] For additional background information on RPCs, their activities, and the policies they promote, see Randall G. Holcombe, “Florida’s Regional Planning Councils: Compromising Property Rights and Limiting Florida’s Economic Growth” (Policy Brief 34, DeVoe Moore Center at Florida State University, April 2014).

[8] There is a substantial amount of research backing this idea. Some excellent work was done by Bernard H. Siegan. For examples, see his Land Use Without Zoning (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1972) and “The Benefits of Non-Zoning,” in Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis, Randall G. Holcombe and Benjamin Powell, eds. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2009): 33–63.