Should Florida put a lid on population growth to retain a ‘quality environment?’

The words practically jump off the page.

“There is a limit to the number of people which the South Florida basin can support and at the same time maintain a quality environment,” the statement to the governor reads. “The State and appropriate regional agencies must develop a comprehensive land and water use plan with enforcement machinery to limit population. This is especially crucial in the South Florida region.”

Have you ever heard Florida elected officials, scientists, conservationists and agricultural experts talk this way? Even conservationists rarely push back on the notion that Florida can and will somehow accommodate everyone who shows up.

But nearly 52 years ago, a joint committee of 150 experts from the Governor’s Conference on Water Management in South Florida told then-Gov. Reubin Askew that South Florida’s water crisis required shutting the door, as “the population level must be one that can be supported by the available natural resources, especially water, in order to sustain a quality environment.”

It was a landmark document, and many of its recommendations — re-flooding the Kissimmee marshes; phasing out back-pumping into Lake Okeechobee — became reality. But the idea of limiting in-migration to Florida was ignored, as you may have noticed on your commute today.

Florida was the fastest growing state in 2022, with the population increasing by 1.9% to 22.2 million. The state estimates that by 2050, the population will balloon to 27.9 million. The state is averaging about 808 new residents per day.

How in the world can we accommodate all these people?

It might be possible — emphasis on “might” — if we hewed closely to smart-growth principles. But in fact the state Legislature prefers stupid, haphazard growth, and seems bent on intimidating citizens who object.

Case in point: House Bill 359, filed by Florida Rep. Wyman Duggan of Jacksonville last month. Under HB 359, anyone who loses in a legal challenge to a comprehensive plan — or comprehensive plan amendment — must pay the other side’s costs. As land-use expert Keith Poliakoff told the South Florida Sun Sentinel, “A developer would love this bill because they would hope it would prevent someone from appealing” changes that facilitate sprawl.

Coupled with other bills — including HB 41, which would prohibit local referendums on development regulations, and HB 439, which would eliminate the current definition of “sprawl” and redefine it as merely “unplanned” development requiring an extension of public services — the legislative gathering this spring is shaping up to be a “session of sprawl.”

Yet at the same time, in his Executive Order 23-06, Gov. DeSantis called on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to partner with the Department of Economic Opportunity and local governments “to improve local government long-term comprehensive planning that ensures sustainable growth while protecting our natural resources.”

Do the above legislative proposals fit the governor’s bill? Would he, in fact, veto these measures if they make it to his desk?

Signing them would be an endorsement of haphazard, un-smart growth destined to worsen water quality problems, destroy wetlands and wildlife habitat and contribute to what the writer Jeff VanderMeer has called “The Annihilation of Florida.

State leaders who signed that statement to Gov. Askew back in 1971 included well-known conservationists like Marjory Stoneman Douglas; representatives from federal agencies and Everglades National Park along with state legislators like Rep. Richard Pettigrew, then Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. Other signatories included 17 county commissioners from around Florida; academics from a variety of Florida colleges and universities, chamber of commerce representatives even an official with the U.S. Sugar Corp.

They knew what would happen if Florida didn’t change its ways. In many ways, we have.

But on key issues like growth, we seem to be regressing. Sticking to smart growth principles could at least mitigate the impact.

But if we won’t even do this, we’re going to have to shut the door, limit the number of people coming to Florida if we aspire to anything remotely resembling the “quality environment” those 1971 leaders tried so hard to protect.