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Florida aims to rein in fast growth. New law will control building on beachfront, tie growth to services

Florida is preparing to implement one of the nation's strongest state laws for protecting coastlines and quality of life. The new law, which takes effect Oct. 1, is drawing praise from developers as well as environmentalists. It was adopted with near unanimous support in the state Legislature and signed recently by Gov. Bob Graham (D).

Behind this unusual spirit of consensus and compromise are continuing population growth pressures. Florida gained more population between 1980 and '84 than any state except California and Texas.

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Florida's remaining open beachfronts are rapidly being developed; roads and highways are often overcrowded; sewer and water systems are falling behind as new homes are built all over the state. The new law addresses these issues.

``We're not closing down Florida; we're not turning off the growth,'' says Jim Quinn, chief of the state's land planning bureau.

But the state is going to restrict some types of coastal development and require quality-of-life standards for inland development.

The law requires:

No new coastal development on land likely to erode into the water within 30 years under natural conditions. The only exception: single-family homes behind a sand dune and built at the back of the property line. This could mean more open beachfronts to walk along than without the law, analysts point out.

No new coastal construction that is not designed to withstand hurricane winds of up to 140 miles an hour and related high wave surges. Restrictions are put on use of state money to rebuild in hurricane-prone areas.

Local government must match new subdivisions, malls, and other development with needed roads, sewers, water lines, and other public facilities. Greater use of fees on developers is expected to pay for such services. These fees will be passed on to homeowners in the form of higher prices, developers say. The state can withhold state revenue-sharing and other funds from local governments that fail to match their infrastructure with development.

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Greater opportunities for citizens to challenge local and state land use and development plans.

``In terms of environment and land-use systems, the Florida system is the strongest in the US,'' says Bob Rhodes, a lawyer (now working for a developer) who chaired a state study team on the issues in the legislation.

The greater oversight power the new law gives the state in land-use matters is ``really a major, major evolutionary change,'' he says.

There is no consensus on whether these changes will slow growth as well as direct it.

Still, environmentalists and developers say they are pleased with the new law, though neither side got all they sought.

The law ``significantly improves protection of Florida's coastline,'' says Casey Gluckman, attorney for the Florida Sierra Club.

With Florida's low elevation, ``some places are very rapidly eroding,'' she says, adding that the new restrictions will gradually result in coastal construction being built further back from the shore.

State review power over local development plans is a key part of the legislation, she says. Local governments have had land-use planning power for a decade, but ``with a few notable exceptions, their track record appears to be abysmal,'' she contends.

State officials originally asked the Legislature for review power only over the coastal aspects of development. But the legislators gave the state's Department of Community Affairs review power over inland planning as well.

Developers came out pretty well under the new law, says Wade Hopping, an attorney for some major developers and another member of the study team.

``We fussed a little, but not much'' over details, he says. ``Most of the issues we raised were addressed.''

Major developers were granted authority to complete up to 10 percent of a project before local government reviews were completed on their proposals. And review criteria were clarified, he said.

Some issues remain unanswered.

Will there be more or fewer reviews of development projects by local governments or regional and state planning offices?

On balance Florida may be ending up with no stronger review procedures than they already have, says Sam Shannon, a regional planner in four southeastern counties, including Palm Beach County. He calls the new law ``a step forward,'' but adds, ``I'm not convinced yet whether its a leap.''

Mr. Hopping raises another point. Without more money for roads, sewers, water lines, and other public facilities, Florida probably can't reach its goal of matching such services with new development as it occurs. The state is already behind by billions of dollars in providing such services, he says. Catching up and keeping up would mean higher gasoline and sales taxes and higher fees on developers, he says.

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