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Florida. Trying to keep growth benefits ahead of its mounting costs

Workers carried furniture out of a huge moving van and into the pastel-colored home in a new Tampa subdivision. A silver Buick Riviera parked in the street sported a Georgia license plate. The Streichers had arrived in Florida.

``My job used to be handled out of our Atlanta office; now it's done in our Tampa office,'' said Michael Streicher, as his two-year-old son searched for toys among moving boxes and his two-week-old daughter squinted in the sun. ``Our office here is going to continue to grow. We just added three new positions.''

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His wife, Terry, added, ``My parents are planning to move here when they retire in a couple of years. If I had to move anywhere, I'm glad it's Florida.''

By themselves, the Streichers are good for Florida. Their arrival means the economy is strong, the housing market is growing, and local stores will have more customers.

They are like a drop of water that nourishes a flower. One drop is always good. So is a small shower. But a torrential rain is another thing.

Hillsborough County planners say that each day the Streichers will make 10 trips on one of the county's main highways, use 155 gallons of water a day, flush 100 gallons of sewage, and throw away 14 pounds of garbage.

All of that is manageable. But the Streichers arrived in March along with about 19,600 other new Florida residents. They will be part of about 250,000 who will stake their claim to the state in 1985, and 5 million who are expected to swell the state's population in the next 15 years.

This year the Florida Legislature will be asked to try to capture control of the state's growth.

In fact, managing growth has become the theme of the session that opens April 2. Gov. Bob Graham has initiated a state plan that outlines how the population should be allowed to expand, and legislative leaders vow that growth management legislation will lead the session.

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``There is not a state in the Union making such a major effort to face up to growth problems,'' says John DeGrove, secretary of the state Department of Community Affairs. ``Nobody comes close to us.''

But controlling growth means controlling profits for many industries that rely on building, expansion, and a laissez-faire use of land. Lobbyists will fight to make sure that whatever laws the legislature passes do them the least amount of harm.

And controlling growth means raising taxes. Florida has long been popular in part because taxes are so low. The state ranks 47th among the 50 states in the amount of money it collects from each citizen.

But low taxes mean fewer services such as roads, sewers, and water systems. No one can accurately project how much it will cost to finance public services over the next 15 years, but estimates range from $45 billion to $60 billion to pay for the people who are already here plus those who are expected to arrive.

And with the drying up of federal funds that used to pay for much of the cost of building sewage-treatment plants, highways, and mass-transit systems, the state and local governments are going to have to shoulder a larger cost burden.

``There will be a price tag, and the citizens will have to pay it,'' said a top highway department official. ``I will either want to pay it or I will want to leave Florida, because in 15 years Florida won't be a suitable place to live.''

In the face of these challenges, there is strong sentiment among Floridians for cutting taxes. Supporters of a constitutional amendment that would have slashed the amount state and local governments could spend were able to get enough voter signatures to place it on last fall's ballot. Although removed from the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court, the proposal still influences legislators.

No one questions that new residents are on their way, and Governor Graham's plan does not say they they should be discouraged from coming.

``The train of population growth has already left the station,'' says Henry Fishkind, a leading Florida economist. ``Only two events could stop Florida's growth: a nuclear war or a couple of major hurricanes. Beyond that kind of holocaust, nothing can stop it. Substantial demographic and economic forces support that view.''

Florida is growing because it is attracting two types of people, explains Mr. Fishkind -- those between 25 and 44 years old who are coming because of jobs being created here and those 65 and over who are retiring. ``And which are the two fastest-growing age groups in the nation?'' he asks. ``You guessed it. The pool of potential migrants is going to go up. About 220,000 people moved to Florida in the middle of the worst recession since World War II. There's nothing stopping them.''

The problems attributed to Florida's phenomenal growth have been kicked around for years.

Most of the new residents want to live near the coast, and the shifting sands of the state's barrier islands are covered with condominiums and hotels that not only block the beach from the public but also could be washed away in a hurricane.

Marine life depends on tidal areas that breed mangrove swamps and sea grasses. But developers see mangrove swamps and sea grasses as blights, and they push state regulators to allow the plants to be bulldozed and the coastline filled.

Much of the state's once-abundant wildlife has been driven into smaller and smaller niches in the Everglades where their habitats are threatened by man-made projects that have drained the land and caused droughts and floods.

Florida appears to have an abundant supply of water, but if too much of it is pumped from the ground near the coast or from Florida's slow-moving rivers, salt water will mix with fresh, destroying it as a supply for people and damaging the environment of estuaries.

If too much pavement covers the land, it stops water from draining naturally into groundwater reserves, source of 90 percent of the state's drinking water. Unregulated garbage and hazardous waste dumps allow poisons to seep into the aquifer.

Even the highly prized ``high-tech'' industries with their once squeaky-clean reputations are a threat to the water supply. Some of them have had trouble storing and disposing the chemical solvents they use to manufacture electronic components.

And when all that fresh water turns into sewage, it overwhelms treatment plants and can degrade the surrounding environment. Highways are congested and the state does not have nearly enough money to relieve them, much less to provide roads for all the new people who are coming. Developers, looking for cheap land, push into the hinterland, paving over farms and straining local governments to provide services for this urban sprawl.

Some environmentalists say they would like to regain the natural Florida. But planners say that is both impossible and undesirable. Few people, they say, would want to live in the Florida of 1885, when residents suffered without air conditioning and were plagued by mosquitoes in the swamps and sand fleas on the beaches.

But the state can take advantage of new technology to grow in an attractive, orderly way, planners say. Growth does not have to mean swatches of strip shopping centers, rows of mobile homes, and tiers of multileveled expressways.

``The sadness of it all is, it is so ugly,'' says Nathaniel Reed, who was the state's first chief environmental regulator. ``Florida genuinely is an ugly state because the development has lacked any style. Very few cities, towns, or even streets are attractive.''

Florida planners want to avoid turning cities like Tampa and Orlando into new Houstons, a city, they say, where rampant, unregulated growth has overwhelmed municipal services. And they want to avoid the wild swings in growth-management policies California experienced as it veered between conservative and liberal philosophies of government.

Florida lawmakers will be debating Governor Graham's growth plan, which touches on every aspect of the state's responsiblity from providing highways to protecting residents, defending the environment, maintaining the economy, and containing urban sprawl.

The plan would control ``leap-frogging'' development, which planners say destroys open spaces and stretches urban services. It also discourages farmers from selling prime agricultural land to developers. And it commits the state to banning additional pollution of water supplies and to begin to clean up existing polluted water.

Legislators will debate whether more controls should be put on coastal development. They will be asked to ban the use of state money to build roads and bridges on barrier islands and to adopt a coastal building code that will require buildings to withstand 140 m.p.h. rather than 120 m.p.h. winds, and to be elevated above storm waves.

A coastal protection bill requires buildings to be constructed farther from the beach so they will not be threatened by erosion for at least 30 years.

The Legislature will be looking once again for a way to raise enough money to build roads. Traffic congestion is the most blatant side effect of rapid growth, and more than 50 percent of the state's urban highways are considered congested.

In 1983 the Legislature changed the state's gasoline tax from a flat 4 cents a gallon to a 5 percent sales tax under the theory that as gasoline prices rose, highway building revenue would increase. But gasoline prices have since fallen, and highway planners say they need a 25-cent-a-gallon tax to keep up with the state's needs. They know they cannot get such a huge tax increase, but they hope the Legislature will provide more money.

Transportation planners say the state cannot possibly build enough roads to allow every commuter to drive to work in his own car. More people are going to have to join car pools or use mass transit, they say. THE Legislature will be asked to provide operating assistance to local mass-transit services so they can expand to meet the growing population. It will also be asked to allow the creation of local transit authorities that would have the power to issue franchises with incentives to encourage private companies to build rail or ``fixed guideway'' systems.

``While the highway department is getting farther behind in building roads to serve the present population,'' says state Rep. Tom Gustafson, ``private business can build trains that will serve the future population.''

The Legislature also will be asked to decide whether local governments should be doing more planning, whether stiffer regulations are needed for large developments, and whether citizens should be given greater legal standing in challenging development.

Many regulations have proved to be impotent because they were not accompanied by enough money to enforce them. So with each new control passed, the Legislature also must decide whether it will adequately fund the regulatory agencies and where the billions of dollars to pay for all these services, plans, and regulations will come from.

The quality of life in Florida in the year 2000 and beyond will be the result of the compromises hammered out during the next two months. If the legislation passed is too weak or not enforced, planners say, Florida's growth will continue unchecked.

``Neither side -- the environmentalists nor the developers -- will be pleased with what we do, because the middle of the road is appropriate,'' says state Sen. Pat Frank.

And ultimately, say planners, the impetus for managing growth must come from local governments, which in many cases have been controlled by developers or have lacked the money to do the job right. The Legislature can force local governments to adopt its own plans, but then it must decide how it can force those governments to stick to them under pressure for development.

In the past, local governments have been reluctant to pass up major development projects, even if they do not agree with their plans. And in some cases local officials have fallen prey to bribes.

``We can't manage the growth of this state from Tallahassee,'' said community affairs director DeGrove, who is the governor's chief adviser on planning. ``We need to encourage, we need to mandate in some cases, and we need to fund the work on the local level. That means citizens must work at electing good people to county commissions and city councils.''

Patrice Flinchbaugh, John Dunn, and Sam Miller helped gather information for this article. Florida's booming population 2000 projected - 15,000,000 1984 - 10,986,000 1970 - 6,851,000 1960 - 4,952,000

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