Florida Forever—Land&People

When Florida first rose in the public imagination after the Civil War, it was a place of unfathomable wilderness, of untamed swamp and bayou, of limitless vistas. Springs bubbled up fresh water from the bottoms of salty bays. Outrageously hued birds evoked Eden, appearing so numerous in flight that they darkened the sky.

Florida was a place of myriad everglades. Everywhere shallow water pooled upon endless prairie, inching across sawgrass and cypress sloughs, near the coasts forming languid streams that braided their way to the sea. Panthers lazed on limbs of oaks. Black bears foraged in palmettoes.

Vacationers in those times boarded paddlewheelers in Jacksonville and sailed up the broad St. Johns River, sometimes alighting at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s winter home at Mandarin. There they picked oranges and hoped for a bit of palaver with “the little lady who caused this great war,” as Abraham Lincoln described the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Writers chronicled solitary adventures canoeing on big Lake Okeechobee, or searching for sponges through glass-bottomed buckets in the limpid waters of the Florida Keys, or flashing on the eyes of alligators hunted by night at the mouth of the Kissimmee River, described by Kirk Munroe as “dark lurid red glowing like dull coals of fire.”

In an age of American expansion, nature was ripe for conquest. Throughout Florida land was drained for cattle and crops, and wildlife was hunted nearly to extinction. Conservation arose only slowly, for a long time limited to the protection of birds with showy plumage. Tourism, which helped lift the state out of bankruptcy following Reconstruction, developed as Florida’s engine of economic growth. And increasingly, tourism has served to fuel the state’s population.

Today Florida raises more than $300 million a year in taxes collected almost exclusively from tourists for use in attracting more tourists. Almost a quarter million of those visitors return each year to settle, along with immigrants from abroad–most drawn not only by good winter weather but by the absence of state income and inheritance taxes, and by the exemption of the first $25,000 of homestead property value. The latter ensures, for example, that most RV owners live in Florida tax-free. Backed by state policy, tourist slogans, and retirement brochures, the deck is stacked for developers, who see only endless suburban edge ready for paving more Paradise Acres.

Since 1970 Florida has more than doubled its population, which today approaches 16 million. An astonishing 90 percent of the state’s population lives in urban areas. This rapid growth caused Florida’s former governor Buddy MacKay to observe sadly, “Florida isn’t a community, it’s a crowd.”

New Funding Brings Parks to Fast-Growing Areas

In mounting reaction to haphazard growth there has been an outpouring of public support for preserving Florida’s environment. The landmark Florida Preservation 2000 Act of 1990 (P-2000) and its successor, Florida Forever–approved by the legislature earlier this year–have set Florida on a 20-year course toward protecting some $6 billion worth of environmentally endangered land. No act of state government in recent years has gained such widespread public approval.

The newly enacted Florida Forever legislation strategically aims to bring land conservation to people where they live. It earmarks $72 million a year for cities and other built-up areas–more than twice the sum of its predecessor P-2000, which concentrated on wildlife habitat.

Governor Jeb Bush emphasized the importance Floridians place on preserving natural systems where they live when he signed the new bill last June at the Oleta River State Recreation Area, one of Miami’s great urban parks. “Florida Forever will continue our state’s ambitious commitment to protect our environmentally sensitive lands,” he said. “We can be particularly proud that this measure will increase funding to local communities for acquisition of parks and urban green spaces.”

Under P-2000, great bounties of rural land have been captured for public recreation–places that include the unspoiled dune system of Topsail Hill Beach in the Panhandle, and the immense Tosahatchee State Reserve that borders the St. Johns River east of Orlando. P-2000 funds have been leveraged to create popular rail-trails like the West Orange, encouraging a vision of an almost 300-mile green necklace strung through north-central Florida.

The Trust for Public Land was a leading proponent of Florida Forever. “We persuaded the legislature not only of the need to protect natural areas and places on the suburban fringe but also to work on controlling sprawl by revitalizing our cities,” says TPL’s Director of Florida Programs Will Abberger. “Providing close-to-home recreational opportunities helps relieve pressures on more pristine areas for development and recreation. For example, metro Miami’s Crandon Park gets more visitors annually than the Everglades do.”

Florida Forever kicks in its augmented urban benefits at a time when Florida’s cities have grown dramatically. Most began as worker towns serving tourists during a short winter season, then evolved into year-round cities still zoned apart from their resort areas. By addressing the demands of both tourists and residents, many cities have found a way to support capital investments in downtown renewal.

For example, as Miami Beach became internationally identified (and locally celebrated) with the renewal of the district known as South Beach, people–especially young families–began relocating to the city’s neglected residential districts. Hundreds of families now live within blocks of where they work. Many people get to their jobs, to the beach, and to nightlife by walking, riding bikes, skating, and riding electric trams.

Miami Beach set an example for other growing Florida resort cities. Widened sidewalks, visual amenities, and historic buildings recycled as restaurants and museums have lately turned once-stagnant Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach into vibrant retail districts by day and entertainment districts at night. Hollywood, West Palm Beach, and Fort Pierce cater to young people with downtown apartments, many newly created over stores. The nightlife locals create for themselves in turn draws tourists, attracting more investment. Much the same is happening in downtown Fort Myers, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, and Tampa on the gulf coast.

Matching Grants Offer Community Incentives

To further promote urban quality of life, Florida Forever allocates $72 million to the Florida Communities Trust (FCT), a nonregulatory agency established in 1989 to help Florida communities implement plans for recreation and open space through grants for parks and land conservation. Under P-2000, FCT has already helped acquire more than 300 properties statewide.

FCT funding has helped bring green space to urban areas like inner-city Tampa, which purchased 2.2 acres of waterfront for Fort Brooke Park in the heart of that city’s tourist, entertainment, and arts district. Residents of Pinellas, Florida’s most urbanized county, gained new recreational lands when FCT helped fund acquisition of 18.5 acres in South Pasadena Habitat Park. Thanks to FCT, rapidly urbanizing Osceola County is developing the 919-acre regional Lake Lizzie Recreation Park with an emphasis on outdoor environmental education for urban youth.

FCT requires some level of match from larger cities that apply for its grants. In order to qualify, all communities must have their growth management plans in order. With clear choices before them of what land will be saved, voters are more likely to approve local funding measures needed to match FCT monies for new parks and open spaces. This was the case three years ago when voters passed the largest public finance referendum in metro Miami’s history. The Safe Neighborhoods Parks Act approved $200 million over eight years to curb crime and slow sprawl in Miami-Dade County and to make the inner city more appealing.

Typical of small-scale, high-impact projects going on around Florida is the 1.1-acre Spring Garden, where Wagner Creek enters the Miami River. Along this industrial waterway the shoreline is being revegetated and stabilized with mangroves, a small wetland is being created to contain stormwater runoff, and an upland site is being sown in plants found here at the time of Miami’s settlement. The park will provide green and open space for residents in this historic middle-class neighborhood only ten minutes from downtown. For children from 22 inner-city schools located less than two miles away, the site will serve as a learning lab about natural Miami. The cost is $550,000–half the funding coming from the bond referendum and half from FCT. “These are the types of small urban projects that can make a tremendous difference,” says TPL’s Miami Project Manager Brenda Marshall.

Meanwhile, Miami is enjoying unprecedented renewal throughout downtown and nearby neighborhoods. Thousands of new high-rise residential units are planned for the downtown development district alone. In July a historic 20-story office tower, snatched from the verge of demolition, reopened with its 129 apartments fully rented.

Orlando, too, is enjoying a residential renaissance, with building conversions and new construction on streets within walking distance of downtown offices. Four new towers are rising on streets south of Lake Eola, which is ringed by a mile-long park the equal of any suburban amenity. Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood points to the revived Thornton Park district along the lake’s eastern shore, which boasts the highest per-square-foot land values in the city. Mayor Hood, a leading backer of Florida Forever, is preparing a $25 million initiative for Orlando’s parks. “We need to recognize the value of green space, parkland, and environmentally sensitive land as we grow our community,” she says. “It’s a proven way to increase economic value.”

The Jacksonville Model

Florida’s preeminent leader in smart growth is Jacksonville’s Mayor John Delaney. Jacksonville, at 840 square miles, is conterminous with Duval County and occupies the largest land mass of any city in America’s lower 48 states. Mayor Delaney earlier this year announced one of the most ambitious county-level land conservation programs in the nation, the $312.8 million Preservation Project.

For Delaney, who contemplates egregious sprawl spilling into two neighboring counties from the south side of his city, there’s no choice but to put teeth into the city’s comprehensive plan of growth that will help renew Jacksonville’s downtown, channel suburban growth where it can be connected to downtown with rapid transit, and protect the land that should be saved. Delaney has relocated city hall to one of Jacksonville’s landmark structures, a renovated department store beside a heart-of-downtown park. A new Adam’s Mark hotel with 975 rooms will open on the St. John’s River before year-end. Condominiums and apartments are rising. The Northbank Riverfront Park is under extension from near Alltel Stadium, home of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars, to the Cummer Museum, a distance of about two miles.

Within 24 months, says Delaney, these moves will open up the whole downtown. “All the surveys we’ve ever done indicate that up to 10 percent of the population would be interested in living downtown,” he says. “Retail follows residential. We’ve seen big turnarounds already.”

Delaney’s vision is to revitalize downtown as a place to live, work, and play while making the immense Timucuan Preserve of riverine marsh and beaches near the mouth of the St. Johns River more accessible. His plan would move people in 15 minutes between downtown and the preserve by a system of water taxis. At the same time, it would bring the preserve physically closer to downtown by adding another 200-acre buffer, one of several new projects he hopes to fund in cooperation with FCT.

Mayor Delaney’s big vision has captured the imagination of all Florida. This state, so long in thrall to developers, newly grasps that it has the capacity not only to preserve the rural best of what remains but to reverse the tide that has already compromised so much of Florida’s natural heritage. And, by effectively leveraging the resources provided by Florida Forever, state and community leaders together with committed citizens can make Florida’s cities better places to live.

Land & People, Fall, 1999

Herb Hiller is a freelance journalist living near Jacksonville. He writes frequently on Florida environmental and business issues.