Florida editorial roundup
Posted May 17
Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Sun-Sentinel on development in south Florida:
It's almost like a race to the top, to see which South Florida city can build the biggest and tallest buildings.
But before suburban communities go sky-high, shouldn't we better understand the impacts this growth will have on roads, water and other public services?
True, strip shopping centers have too long defined Florida's landscape, making it hard to know where one city begins and another one ends. So you can understand the urge to develop a real downtown, a city center, something that offers a real sense of place.
But the trend for onwards and upwards also runs counter to why people left the urban core, and carries consequences worthy of further examination before this race to the top goes much further.
As the Sun Sentinel's Anne Geggis reports, because several cities have basically run out of land for development, they are building vertically.
Coconut Creek is letting the Seminole Tribe of Florida build a 24-story hotel. Right now, the city's tallest building is six stories.
Boynton Beach is planning to allow buildings of up to 15 stories in its traditionally low-rise downtown.
Pompano Beach is looking to add eight-story buildings on streets that have never had buildings more than two stories high.
Coral Springs is developing a downtown where buildings could reach 10 stories or more.
Deerfield Beach has broken ground on a hotel on the Intracoastal Waterway that is four stories higher than the area's zoning normally allows.
There is more.
A developer wanted to wrap the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale with three towers that exceeded 20 stories, and four shorter towers. The project has been in discussion for three years. This week Fort Lauderdale commissioners thankfully said the developer hadn't done enough to reduce heights and density.
Last year, we had the possibility of two 39-story condo towers at Bahia Mar and a public uproar followed. The latest plan — for seven buildings of 10 to 12 stories on the city-owned waterfront land — is still getting blowback for being too dense.
And how can we forget the American Dream Miami, the amusement park-shopping village that could become the nation's biggest mall, and is predicted to attract more annual visitors than Walt Disney World? This project, which has received preliminary approval from the Miami-Dade County commission, is slated to be built less than two miles south of the Broward County line.
With all of this going on, it is fair to ask what the quality of life in South Florida will be 10 to 20 years from now.
Has there been enough thought given to our already-awful traffic situation? What about water? What about the strain on schools and other essential services? Will there be any green space left? Is there any thought to what brought people to South Florida in the first place?
And what about all the empty condos and office space in South Florida? Do we really need more?
Hallandale Beach vice mayor Keith London said he has regrets the over-development of his city, which is home to the county's tallest structure, the 52-story Beach Club, Phase II.
"It's not just the height ... it's the density and the intensity," London told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. "I want to come up with solutions to put residents on an equal playing field."
London said residents might be more willing to accept development if "we provide them some amenities. Do something for the public. A neighborhood park. A fire station. Give them a public place to go. We have to make communities livable."
South Florida boasts examples of lovely suburban downtowns — a place for residents to go, a place that differentiates one community from the other. Just look at Mizner Park in Boca Raton, or the Promenade in Coconut Creek. No high-rises, but places that offer shopping, restaurants and others amenities that attract residents and visitors.
Residents are making their voices heard on overdevelopment, and that's a good sign. We hope their voices get louder before it's too late to retain our quality of life.
The Orlando Sentinel on a school bill:
Making laws is often compared to making sausage. But that analogy assumes the process, no matter how unsavory, will produce something palatable.
That's not the case for a massive education measure, House Bill 7069, passed on the final day of this year's session of the Florida Legislature. The bill is simply too big, and too distasteful, to swallow.
A cynical package
Dozens of significant changes to Florida education policies were crammed into a measure, known as a conforming bill, normally reserved for details related to the budget and not subject to any changes through amendments. Some of the policies were considered in only one chamber; others never even got a hearing; at least one had actually been voted down by a Senate committee. The $419 million, 278-page bill wasn't released to legislators until the Friday night before Monday's vote.
Policies sought by advocates for traditional public schools were cynically packaged by House leaders in a must-pass bill with sweetheart provisions for privately run charter schools. Two public school leaders in Central Florida, Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette and Seminole County Superintendent Walt Griffin, told us they appreciated some parts of the bill, but resented others. "The harm outweighs the good," Sublette said.
Both Sublette and Griffin called on Gov. Rick Scott to veto it. We join that call.
Even state Sen. David Simmons, the Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs his chamber's education spending subcommittee and presented the bill on the floor, ended up voting against it. He warned that if the bill passed, "We're going to have to fix it, this fall and next year." The bill passed in the Senate with no votes to spare.
More 'hope' for charters
Among concessions to critics of the state's heavy reliance on standardized testing, the bill would postpone the window for testing to later in the school year, to allow more time for teaching and leave less dead time afterward. It would allow school districts to administer some tests with pencil and paper rather than online. It would authorize districts to drop a convoluted state formula that ties teacher evaluations to their students' scores. These are modest but welcome steps.
While the bill would provide "highly effective" teachers a $1,200 bonus and "effective" teachers an $800 bonus, teachers organizations and their allies would have preferred across-the-board raises. The bill also would prolong a controversial program that rewards teachers based in part on their ACT or SAT scores from high school, postponing any changes to 2021, and making principals eligible for bonuses, too.
And at the insistence of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the bill includes $140 million to create "Schools of Hope" — privately managed charter schools to compete in low-income neighborhoods with traditional public schools that have received D or F grades for three or more years in a row. The House reportedly spent nine hours debating Schools of Hope; the Senate spent only 90 minutes.
In a concession to skeptics of the speaker's plan, the bill would allocate funding for 25 of those struggling public schools to provide additional services to raise their students' academic performance. But that would reach just a fraction of the 200 schools that Simmons said would qualify.
Short shrift to major decisions
There are other provisions friendly to charter schools in the bill, including a mandate that districts distribute a portion of local tax revenue designated for school construction to charters. Even the bill's requirement that elementary schools provide at least 20 minutes a day of recess would exempt charters.
Each of the bill's many provisions could have, and should have, been thoroughly examined and debated in separate pieces of legislation. "These are major decisions that impact millions of students," Griffin said.
Scott, who is likely to run for U.S. Senate next year, has increasingly positioned himself as an advocate for public education and transparency in government. His veto of HB 7069 would add some credibility to those claims.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal on medical marijuana:
One of the guiltiest pleasures of Florida's legislative session is the final-week speculation over who, or what, will go up in flames. The hashtag #billsaredying starts popping up on Twitter, and gossip over dramatic walkouts or sneaky last-minute maneuvers grows rampant.
And it's far too easy to forget that these entertaining cage matches between lawmakers, lobbyists and other key players can have real-life consequences for Floridians who will never set foot in the state's Capitol building.
That is certainly the case for many Floridians with cancer, multiple sclerosis, debilitating pain and other serious health conditions — the people whose suffering prompted voters to approve a constitutional amendment in November directing the Legislature to set up a framework making medical marijuana legal (at least under state law), safe and relatively easy to obtain for those who fit the criteria spelled out in the amendment.
And at first, the Legislature seemed bent on defying voters. Under one House version of the bill, medical marijuana would have been all but impossible to obtain or use — until late in the session, that bill would have forbidden using the drug by smoking, eating or vaporizing it. That left supporters asking exactly how these desperately ill patients were supposed to cope, since it's illegal to make it into pill form. The House also included language that would have put doctors who authorize marijuana use at risk of losing their U.S. Food and Drug Administration license to prescribe any other medications to any other patients. But eventually, a deal was struck. House and Senate agreed to allow vaping and marijuana-laced edibles, and the provision doctors found so risky came out of the House bill.
The final product wasn't perfect — it still banned smoking, though the language of the amendment approved by voters clearly indicated smoking should be allowed, and the smokable form of marijuana is said to have wider-ranging benefits. Meanwhile, at least one medical marijuana advocate felt the compromise bill's cap on granting licenses, combined with the ability for license holders to open large numbers of storefront locations, would create statewide "cartels" that controlled medical pot, potentially keeping prices high.
That's the issue that blew the bill up — leading to a high-profile and (to political insiders, highly diverting) public split between Ben Pollara, executive director of the organization that got the medical pot issue on the ballot, and John Morgan, the ambitious Orlando trial attorney who helped bankroll the amendment and was a passionate advocate for medical pot. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron also hurled blame at each other for throwing up procedural roadblocks that kept the bill from moving in the last hours of the session.
By elevating intralegislative warfare over the well-being of desperately ill Floridians and the clearly expressed will of Florida voters, lawmakers shamed themselves and broke public trust. They must make amends.
The easiest way would be to hand off rulemaking to the Florida Department of Health, but that agency's initial proposed rule also drew fire, for restricting marijuana use to medical conditions determined by a state board, rather than individual physicians (another provision supporters say violates the letter of the constitutional amendment). It also would restrict licenses to seven companies with permission to grow and distribute a low-THC version of pot already approved for use by terminally ill people.
Corcoran said this week he thinks a special session on marijuana is needed, while Negron asked senators to weigh in on, presumably, the same question. Coming back into session — and actually doing their jobs this time — makes sense.
In the meantime, Florida dispensaries are proceeding with plans under the limited rules already in place. The News Service of Florida reports that one licensed grower/distributor has already started selling a "whole flower" form of medical marijuana that can be smoked. That distributor, Trulieve, plans to open a dispensary in Edgewater within five weeks and is considering another storefront in DeLand. Another company has identified a location in Port Orange.
Florida leaders can't say no to medical marijuana — not after voters have already said yes. But they can ease the uncertainty of those who are already struggling with painful, sometimes life-threatening ailments, and finally give voters the respect they deserve.