Monday, June 13, 2011

Will the Community Planning Act Revive Rural Land Stewardship?

The Community Planning Act and HB 7207 redesigned growth management in Florida. When the Act was signed into law, it changed more than just  the comprehensive plan amendment process. More quietly, the Community Planning Act made a number of other changes. For instance, it also prohibits comprehensive plan amendment referenda. It also may have resurrected an interesting large area planning tool called Rural Land Stewardship.

Rural Land Stewardship: Innovative, Large Scale, Rural Planning

Rural Land Stewardship was born out of Collier County's struggles in court to bring its comprehensive plan into compliance with the Growth Management Act. Collier County came up with a collaborative solution that was authorized by the Legislature as a pilot project. Governor Bush's Growth Management Study Commission suggested a form of the program as a way to bring incentive-based planning to rural areas. Early results looked promising, and the program was expanded for statewide use in 2004. Collier County's Rural Land Stewardship Program, which covers almost 200,000 acres, is still being implemented today. Collier County posts a great deal of data, analysis, and planning studies on its website about its program. 

Part of the beauty of Rural Land Stewardship, as implemented in Collier County, was its flexibility. It promoted agriculture, conserved land and resources, and protected private property rights. In 2009, I published an article finding that Rural Land Stewardship was important because it was one of the first programs in the country to show that growth management could be integrated with ecosystem services to conserve agriculture. Florida was truly on the cutting edge of large scale planning in rural areas.

Rural Land Stewardship, however, never took off. A second Rural Land Stewardship Area would have transferred the development rights from Adams Ranch in St. Lucie County to a non-contiguous development called Cloud Grove. It would have preserved about 17,000 acres. Family Lands Remembered has a good deal of information about this plan. DCA approved the plan, but St. Lucie County's support wore thin later. After years of negotiations, however, the plan failed to materialize. Different accounts of this areas' failure have circulated, but it did seem to spook planners and developers from the concept.

Furthermore, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) hindered Rural Land Stewardship. It drafted a rule, 9J-5.026, Florida Administrative Code, making Rural Land Stewardship so difficult to implement, that it effectively killed the program. The rule development began in 2007, and landowners immediately became leery of a program with mercurial goals. Why spend thousands of dollars studying and planning with no assurances the game would be the same when DCA reviewed a project?

The Community Planning Act Revives Rural Land Stewardship

Over at the Florida Land Development Regulation blog, Laura Barber Bellflower has posted a helpful summary of the new Rural Land Stewardship statute. She has also posted a document showing how the previous §163.3177(d), Florida Statutes, was incorporated into the new §163.3248, Florida Statutes. For the most part, the new statute adds detail to the bare-bones structure of the previous statute. Some descriptive portions seem to have been taken from the rule, but they do not seem to overburden the updated program.

The Legislature made clear that it stands behind Rural Land Stewardship and large scale planning in Florida: "This section constitutes an overlay of land use options that provide economic and regulatory incentives for landowners outside of established and planned urban service areas to conserve and manage vast areas of land for the benefit of the state's citizens and natural environment while maintaining and enhancing the asset value of their landholdings." §163.3248, Fla. Stat.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the new Rural Land Stewardship statute is that rulemaking is not allowed. The statute must simply be implemented as it stands. Elsewhere in HB 7207, the Legislature repealed the Rural Land Stewardship rule, along with the rest of chapter 9J-5. Combined with the responsibility for growth management that has been handed to local governments through the Community Planning Act, the uncertainty caused by state-level policy may have been controlled.

Rural Land Stewardship is one of the "Planning Innovations" in chapter 163, Florida Statutes. It has yet to fully live up to its expectations. The Community Planning Act, however, has made Rural Land Stewardship more accessible and less bureaucratic. Sector plans, another large-scale planning tool for rural areas, were also made more accessible by the Community Planning Act. Together, these two tools give communities better options for large-scale rural planning.