The dismantling of the Department of Community Affairs by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature has put more power into the hands of local governments — a good thing, argues the governor, for development and growth. But just how much growth is too much?

With the economy still in flux, local governments continue to approve tens of thousands of acres for use as attractive communities — communities that come with their own fire stations, grocery stores and, in some cases, water parks.

The reform of growth management laws has eased the process for building new communities, but some say developers were getting their way long before talk of reducing the state’s role in land-use planning. While some argue that sprawl is good, and can lead to jobs and economic development, many — like Lesley Blacker, the president of 2010′s “Hometown Democracy” movement — say it’s hurting local environments and community water resources.

Blackner has teamed up with friend Janet Stanko to launch The Price of Sprawl, a website detailing the consequences of sprawl in counties across the state. Stanko says that Northeast Florida’s St. Johns County is a poster child for over-development — with many large-scale communities sitting empty, and others approved but not yet built.

According to Stanko, recent build-out projects in St. Johns contain enough properties to house 182 percent of the current population. Eight percent of homes in the area sit empty; property values have declined 31 percent since 2006.

Even Stanko, who obtained her information from a variety of sources, finds the statistics to be almost unbelievable. But, she says, other estimates fall in line with hers.

“Other information sources show the overall picture is the same: too much development approved and built, too much cost to the taxpayers and not enough water,” says Stanko.

One community that has Stanko and others like her especially worried is Nocatee, a neighborhood between Jacksonville and St. Augustine that has grown at a staggering pace in recent years. What was once just a parcel of land along County Road 210 is now freshly paved and dotted with palm trees, and the community even boasts a water park complete with a “lazy river” and water slide. But the current number of homes in Nocatee is nowhere near what was originally projected.

Nocatee’s story is fragmented across dozens of newspaper and web articles, spanning several years, making it difficult to grasp the whole picture — especially for residents who, says Stanko, “have no idea what’s happening to them.”

Stanko points to a 2000 article appearing in the St. Augustine Record, in which St. Johns County Budget Officer Joe Vonasek cited an estimated $692 million in taxes that would be used to offset the then-proposed Nocatee development, over the 25 years it would be built out.

At the time, the 15,000-acre planned community — which was set to be located on land owned by the Davis family, the founders of Winn-Dixie — seemed like an attractive idea, especially with talk of taxes offsetting infrastructure costs. “They always fudge numbers at the beginning of the negotiation process to make it appear that the proposed development will pay for itself,” says Stanko.

By 2004, the story had changed: Those who purchased property in Nocatee would be the ones picking up the tab for infrastructure.

“The St. Johns County Commission gave the Nocatee developers permission in November to re-configure County Road 210, a $100 million job that’s scheduled to begin this year,” reads a 2004 Florida Times-Union article. “The developers had said when asking to do that work that they would cover the cost. At last week’s hearings, however, they said a community development district would eventually assess Nocatee property owners to reimburse bonds used to pay for the infrastructure.”

Around 2007, the bubble burst, making it more apparent than ever that the approval of communities like Nocatee should be more thought out. “The ultimate result of approving over-development is a fiscal crunch from over-borrowing to pay for infrastructure,” says Stanko.

Of all of the components of building a community like Nocatee, schools are arguably the most expensive. According to Stanko, school construction costs for Nocatee at the time of build-out were around $82 million.

But the problem extends beyond the cost of infrastructure. According to The Price of Sprawl, there simply aren’t enough resources for these large-scale communities. “There is much political double talk to mask the true facts that we do not have enough water for the over-development in Northeast Florida,” says Stanko.

A regional review published in 2009 by the St. Johns River Water Management District warned that Northeast Florida could become a “caution area” for water use across the country. If a growing population doesn’t use less within the next 20 years, said the report, aquifer levels could drop considerably — causing harm to the environment and drawing saltier water into utility wells, making some of the water unfit for human use.

As early as 2000, a concerned Ponte Vedra resident penned an op-ed for The Florida Times-Union titled “GROWTH MANAGEMENT: Nocatee is an urban sprawl issue.”

“There is myth and then there is fact. The myth is that growth pays for itself,” read the piece.

Sierra Club officials lobbied fiercely against Nocatee, arguing it would harm the environment. The group eventually settled with developers after two unsuccessful legal challenges against the neighborhood.

Nocatee is zoned for 10,000 single-family and 4,000 condo-style properties. But by 2009 (.pdf), only about 400 homes were built and occupied. According to the Nocatee website, homebuilders started construction of 189 new homes in Nocatee in 2010, “55 percent more than any other community in Northeast Florida.”

According to the Nocatee welcome center, the area currently houses more than 850 resident families in its seven communities — approximately 3,500 people total. The amount of vacant homes is unclear, but developers promise that the number of homes built (and bought) will rise. Nocatee is, after all, projected to be a 35-year development, and is only in year six.

But despite the country’s housing crisis (which hit Florida harder than any other state in the nation), Nocatee’s development company, the PARC group, is currently building a second community park — one that will  provide residents with “about 10 acres of wooded and cleared greenspace, and will feature a large gazebo for events, a playground, soccer field, dog park and nature trails.” The PARC group could not be reached for comment about the Nocatee development.

According to Federal Election Commission records, PARC President Roger O’Steen has been a prolific political donor in years past — giving to the campaigns of John McCain, Katherine Harris, Bill Nelson and recently donating $2,500 to the Mitt Romney campaign. He has also given at least $10,000 to the Americans Nationwide Dedicated to Electing Republicans PAC.

Even though large-scale build-out projects like Nocatee were approved years before Gov. Rick Scott took office, his administration has emphasized the need for further deregulation.

Despite the fact that the Department of Community Affairs approved 1.5 billion square feet of new commercial and office space and almost 600,000 housing units since 2007, Scott often referred to the department as a “job killer.” In a 2010 interview, Scott was quoted as saying that the department “really impacted people that want to build things,” adding: “Their attitude is, ‘How can somebody in Tallahassee tell my local community what we want, and DCA sits there and tells us we can’t do it?’ … I’ll tell you, it’s really killing jobs.”

Developers are selling more than their large-scale communities filled with homes, manicured lawns and dozens of amenities. They are selling the idea of a healthy economy. Blackner, for one, isn’t buying it.

“Development in Florida is a Ponzi scheme,” she says. “Local governments are constantly pushing new developments, saying it will generate great tax money and jobs. But the jobs are construction jobs — they are temporary. They can’t be the main driver of your economy. And the costs to these proposals are to the taxpayers, to the voters. Undeveloped land has no costs associated with it.”

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