World and Nation

As Florida condos sit empty, voters enter battle on growth

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — Lesley Blackner drove through a maze of condominium towers, rarely seeing any curtains in the windows, or residents, and tried to contain her anger.

“They’ve crammed as much as they can in here,” she said this month, noting that just a few years ago cows grazed on the land west of Interstate 95. “The people around here didn’t want it — they objected. But the City Commission did it anyway.”

Even now, with about 300,000 residential units sitting empty around the state, the push to build continues. Since 2007, local governments have approved zoning and other land use changes that would add 550,000 residential units and 1.4 billion square feet of commercial space, state figures show.

So for Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer, the real estate crisis is not just the fault of Wall Street, Washington or misguided borrowers; it is also the back-scratching bond between elected officials and builders — a common source of frustration in weak real estate markets wherever developers are still fighting to add more housing.

In Florida, at least, Blackner hopes to put an end to the chronic oversupply with a ballot initiative she has labeled “Hometown Democracy.”

Amendment 4, as it is officially called, would give Floridians a vote on changes to state-mandated plans for growth in every county and municipality. Much of the potential impact of the measure is up for debate, with important details most likely to be decided by the courts.

But if it is added to the state’s constitution — which would require 60 percent approval on Election Day — critics and supporters envision revolutionary change.

Leaders of the Yes on 4 campaign, including Blackner, say it would end a culture of freewheeling development that began when Hamilton Disston started dredging Florida swamps in the 1880s. Critics, led by chambers of commerce, say the measure would lead to lost jobs, chaos and expensive court battles.

But this is not an even fight. Blackner’s group has raised $2.4 million (with $800,000 from her own pocket), but most of it was spent on getting on the ballot.

The No on 4 campaign has raised nearly $12 million through a series of political action committees. The Florida Association of Realtors is its largest single contributor, giving more than $2.3 million.

The nation’s biggest homebuilders, after receiving a multibillion-dollar bailout from Congress this year, have also been quite generous. A rural area like Jackson County has room for 996 years of residential growth at current rates, according to a 2009 state analysis. Charlotte County has 162 years of growth in its plan, while St. Lucie County has the capacity to house its growing population for the next 212 years.