By Whit Blanton, FAICP, Executive Director, Forward Pinellas
A version of this publication was originally prepared for the American Planning Association’s President’s Message.
The return of cooler air and the end of hurricane season brings the ramping up of the political process for the next Legislative Session. Ahead of its Jan. 9 start, bills are already being filed as legislative committees hold their fall meetings. With a strong economy and rapid in-state migration continuing, look for plenty of money and influence to be wielded in the run-up to a big election year.
Through its Legislative & Policy Committee and governmental affairs advocate, APA Florida is closely tracking and taking action where necessary on bills of interest. I’ll highlight a few areas of interest for now:
Live Local Act
The Live Local Act is a statewide housing strategy designed to increase the affordability of housing for those in the workforce who want to live near where they work. APA Florida, through the APA Florida Housing Clearinghouse, is gathering information on its implementation, challenges, and workarounds so they can share those with legislators. APA FL has also begun receiving ideas for potential refinements in the law as bill opportunities emerge. If you are interested in housing affordability, feel free to join the Clearinghouse to contribute or just keep in touch.
Record levels of funding in the state budget are going toward easing traffic congestion thanks to the Moving Florida Forward initiative. However, state legislators and the highway lobby are placing additional constraints on transit funding. The SB 266 bill would cap, or limit, expenses used for public transportation to 20 percent of the State Transportation Trust Fund.
Another constraint, which may pit cities vs. counties against one another, is that public transportation projects would not count against this funding cap if they get super-majority support from the Board of County Commissioners. The concern with this is, in looking at the whole state, that cap may be reached quickly considering major transit projects developing in Southeast Florida and state funding policy requiring local matches for grants. Taken together, this would leave little funding for other areas of the state for public transportation projects unless they get support from the vast majority of the Board of County Commissioners.
Climate Change, the Florida Wildlife Corridor, and Carbon Reduction
According to recent Florida Atlantic University public opinion research, Floridians overwhelmingly believe in climate change and want government action. Floridians polled 16 percent higher than national surveys on those points, perhaps reflecting Floridian’s awareness of the state’s geographical position and the effects of recent storms. That helps explain some of the state’s actions on the topic of resilience and other policy changes, but there’s still plenty of resistance; for instance, the poll revealed fewer Floridians believe in human-caused climate change (57% vs. 64% in the prior survey), which may lead to less emphasis on mitigation strategies (efforts to prevent the negative impacts of climate change) versus adaptation strategies (actions taken to adjust to negative impacts of climate change).
I got to thinking more about this topic at a recent Florida Greenways & Trails Foundation meeting in St. Petersburg, where presentations on the state’s Shared Use Non-motorized Trail (SUNTrail) program and non-profit Live Wildly Foundation reinforced the support we have for conservation lands, habitat preservation, and public access to scenic and natural lands. We have plenty of initiatives, directed policy actions, and funding to carry out our responsibilities in strategic and innovative ways.
For instance, by establishing the Florida Wildlife Corridor program in 2021 and passing SB 106 in 2023, there’s ample legislative support to pay for trails and wildlife crossings. The recent law authorizes a one-year infusion of $200 million and a doubling of annual funding to $50 million for the SUNTrail program, including expanded wildlife corridor support. With those policy directives and funding, we can plan towards keeping new growth and developments away from conservation lands and habitats. Aligning water quality, habitat migration, environmental preservation, housing and economic development, transportation, and utilities is a massive challenge as Florida grows to a projected 30 million residents by 2050.
We can’t keep counting on federal funds like the Carbon Reduction Program and other elements of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or Inflation Reduction Act to solve our problems. We’re going to have to work community by community and across regions to apply the skills and knowledge of professional planners to manage climate change, both through mitigation and adaptation solutions. From recognition to action, we must align our goals with implementation of the Live Local Act, statewide transportation investment policy, and habitat conservation, around shared values, community concerns, and mutual interests.