History and the People Who Make It: John DeGrove Part II

Transcript edited by pierce butler

This is the second part of the tenth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

John DeGrove, “the father of growth management law in Florida,” was interviewed by Cynthia Barnett [B] on December 1, 2001.

I was born in St. Augustine at Florida East Coast Hospital. I was the first person in my family ever born in a hospital. [I grew up in] Palm Valley, where Ponte Vedra is now.

Daddy cut buds, pole buds and ax buds. We went to the Guana [River], which was to the east over toward the ocean. It’s along what’s now [highway] A1A, the Guana. It’s a freshwater [area]. The ocean is right over there across the dunes. We’d go to the Guana to shoot ducks and coots. [There] wasn’t any sporting foolishness about this. We got into the Guana, crept up on them, shot them on the water, killed as many as we possibly could with one shot. I was the bag boy for both of these things, when we were cutting buds, following Daddy around in the woods and when we were shooting coots and ducks. We’d take them into what we call the colored section in Pablo and sell them three for a quarter. Didn’t matter whether it was ducks or coots or what mix it was. They were glad to get them and we were glad to get the quarter. We had an old Model-T then, how we got into Pablo to sell these ducks and coots.

Of course, we [also] shot those to eat for ourselves. At any rate, cutting buds – cabbage palms or sable palm trees. The bud is the thing that comes up out of the middle of a cabbage palm. It’s the upper part, it’s not the stuff you eat. It’s the bud that comes out. That bud hooks into the heart of palm. If you are skilled, you can cut buds without killing the palm tree and it grows another bud. A lot of the land out in Palm Valley was owned by whoever, but we cut buds on that land just as though it was ours. Nobody cared. Ax buds are buds that come from the shorter cabbage palms that you can reach with an ax. You’ve got to cut it right or you will kill the tree.

The pole buds are the tall ones. You’ve got to have a long pole and a chisel on the end. You’ve got to be really skilled, again, not to kill the tree, just to cut the bud. We started cutting those in the fall when it got cool enough. We cut them and banked them up and covered them over with straw and dirt and saved them for the bud brokers, the people that bought them up for Palm Sunday for the Catholic church. That was quite a source of income.

B:    It must have always helped you to be kind of a country boy from northeast Florida.

That’s true and that’s particularly true of some folks who turned out to be very valuable and helpful when I got on into the university system much, much later who thought I was just a carpetbagger who came down from North Carolina or from some worse place than that. It was always a shock to them that I was born and raised, technically not born in Palm Valley, but might as well have been.

That applied to Charlie Foreman, who was [on] the old Board of Control, later the Board of Regents.

[Crisis] brought about this first effort to manage our growth better. It was a real severe drought in southeast Florida and in the Tampa Bay region, in 1970 and 1971. That coincided with the election of Reubin Askew as governor. The drought was reaching historic proportions. Lake Okeechobee fell to a new level. Where have you heard that before?

Different people were worried about running out of water. For agriculture, for all the things that you need water for. Some people were worried about the Everglades then. Askew convened this conference on water management in south Florida. Art Marshall and I co-chaired it. I insisted on using the American Assembly approach. We [have] to get the bad guys and the good guys around a table together and see if we can convince each other that there are win-win solutions to managing our growth better. What brought those people to the table was Askew making it clear that whatever this conference recommended, he was going to push very hard to get it passed in the legislature. Once you get them to the table, sometimes you do find common ground.

Water, land, the environment, the economy, affordable housing. I was beginning to get my nose in that a proper growth management system not only gets well-funded but it’s comprehensive. It looks at [things] like affordable housing, at jobs and the economy. It’s broad-based. We snuck up on the blind side of these people who didn’t want anything to happen when we pulled in Fred Bosselman, a co-author of the American Law Institute Model State Land Development Code. This sounds kind of dry and technical, but it turned out to be critical because this had a lot of clout, status, and prestige. It wasn’t a [bunch of] wild-eyed environmental nuts.

We recommended four bills to the 1972 legislature. The Environmental Land and Water Management Act, Chapter 380. The Water Resources Act, Chapter 373. That set up the new Water Management Districts. What a coup that was. To this day, a critical factor in any effort to save the Everglades is the fact that the Water Management Districts are drawn along river basin boundaries.

Finally, the Land Conservation Act. It remains to this day – the most broadly-based system [in the US] to acquire environmentally-sensitive lands and protect them from development.

We had a hell of a time getting some of these things through the legislature.

We would not have gotten it through without [Bob] Graham. Chapter 163 passed in 1975. This Local Government Comprehensive Planning Act, Chapter 163, for its time and especially for Florida, was really a bold move. Its implementation was weakened by the failure to fund it adequately. It mandated that every city and county in the state develop a plan. The cities and counties that did do plans [and took them seriously] were able to manage their growth better [than] they could have done without this legislation.

We promised to help pay the state share of the cost of preparing the mandated local plans. $50,000,000. They got $750,000, I think. It didn’t amount to peanuts.

Never mind that we later let sprawl burst out all over, Palm Beach County did a good job. Dade County came up with one of the first urban-development boundaries. The first, I guess, in the state. Dade set about to try to do some good things. Not so much over on the west coast. Hillsborough, Tampa area made some moves to do some good things. Jacksonville did a lot: [Preserving] green space, promoting in-fill and redevelopment and good moderate density, but also buying up, protecting open space.

On balance it didn’t function to cope with all this growth. The first among the negatives, and this is a broken record with me, [is] failure to recognize that substantial new funding would be required for incentives and disincentives to make the system work. To fix it up so that local governments that did that got extra [support]. And local governments that only did the minimum, they got the minimum. They didn’t get nothing. You had to have this pot of money. Some good things were done, [such as] the DRI [Development of Regional Impact] process. The patterns of development, good design, adequate infrastructure. Much better than under non-DRI projects. [The] Water Resources Act put Florida in the forefront, nationally. I’m so proud of that. It turned out to be much more important and far-sighted than I thought it was at the time.

The whole notion of concurrency came out of the DRI process – you had to account for those regional impacts. Regional planning councils reviewed these DRI projects. The [DRI] statute had things about housing and affordable housing, development to protect natural areas, good urban areas.

The DRI process, and I expand on this a lot in the Land, Growth, and Politics book, really did a lot of good things.

B:    In 1982 the Environmental Land Management Study Committee II, [ELMS II] was formed. You were a member of that committee, appointed by Bob Graham.

ELMS II constituted a broad cross-section of folks concerned with growth, including all of the principal adversaries now. We had them all there, my God, at each other’s throats, with the hope that there could be agreement on problems, agreement on solutions, and a series of clear and strong recommendations could be taken to the legislature. To completely revamp Florida’s growth management system was the goal. The final report of ELMS II went to the governor and the legislature in 1984. ELMS II laid it out, bringing a little realism for the first time – that growth didn’t pay for itself automatically and new funding would have to be provided if Florida was going to grow responsibly. ELMS II was a knock-down drag-out fight.

B:    By this time you are Secretary of the state Department of Community Affairs. How did [the governor] convince you to do that?

Partly because I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut. I was so frustrated with the way we were implementing or not implementing [policies and with] the way DCA was doing things. I felt they should be enforcing some of the things that they were charged to do. Oversight [in] challenging the failure of local governments to do what they were supposed to do.

By then I had my Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems set up and I was doing a lot of good stuff. We agreed I would come for two years and we did it on an intergovernmental transfer thing. I never left my position at FAU.

We got things started in 1984 by drafting the proposed state comprehensive plan. During the [1985] session, the legislature held extensive hearings on the proposed state comprehensive plan and adopted the plan into law fairly early in the session. The goals and policies were reasonably concise and specific and were a meaningful framework within which the rest of the system could function.

None of this was implemented as [it] should have been. It was money. The heart of the Omnibus [Growth] Management Act was a provision that all local governments prepare new comprehensive plans, consistent with the goals and policies of the state plan, as well as with the comprehensive regional policy plans. This provision provided the critical link between state, regional, and local levels, bringing Florida into a position, at least potentially, of managing its growth comprehensively at all levels.

These state agencies’ functional plans would determine the agency budget submissions so that, in theory at least, a policy framework would drive the budget process instead of vice-versa. It still isn’t happening very well.

We never implemented this whole system in an effective fashion. You remember when we promised local governments $50,000,000? This time we promised local governments multi-billions of dollars to [help] pay for the concurrency requirement. We didn’t manage to set up meaningful urban-growth boundaries or urban limit-lines.

Sprawl did get worse, because we didn’t enforce the overall [plan] and didn’t fund it adequately. Dade County did some very good things [with public transportation] and in setting the levels of service, relaxing them where they wanted their growth and development to take place and having them stricter and stricter as you moved out. If you got beyond their urban-development boundary, they were really tough. Which is conceptually the right approach to take.

It goes back to funding, not because we didn’t provide the promised funding to redo the plans. We did that. It was funding for concurrency [that we didn’t do]. The multimillion dollar issues, we did. It took just about as much funding as we had promised in the 1975 local government comprehensive planning act, well over $50,000,000 that we passed to them. But that left funding concurrency, the big multibillion dollar issue. We got that right when we set up the Comprehensive Plan Committee, the so-called Zwick committee.

That Zwick committee report is totally relevant today. It’s one of the finest and toughest and smartest outlining of what we have done right and wrong and it explains completely why we haven’t been able to effectively implement our growth management system. They set it up so we could have. If we had kept the sales tax on services in place in the infrastructure trust fund where it was earmarked to go to local governments to help them meet the concurrency requirements, it would have produced between twenty-two and twenty-five billion dollars. With that kind of money, you could have done more than the minimum.

[Gov.] Bob Martinez supported the sales tax on services strongly. It was a sad thing for Martinez. I’m almost certain he would have been re-elected governor [if he had kept his support for the sales tax on services]. I don’t think Chiles would have even thought of running against him if he had stuck to his guns.

We collected for six months, half-a-billion dollars, put it in the infrastructure trust fund. All that was earmarked for the right thing to cause this system to work right. They apparently did a survey and it showed a lot of opposition, by the very people that [GHW] Bush was counting on to carry Florida for him, to the sales tax on services. Never mind that a majority of the people probably supported it. Chiles was persuaded by Buddy MacKay to come out of the woodwork.

Lawton wins in 1990, [during] a severe depression in Florida [and with a] hostile legislature. Chiles’s strategy was to set up ELMS III. The group met first on December 19, 1991, friend and foe alike doubting that it could reach a consensus on anything. Fourteen meetings later, December 15, 1992, we had a consensus that strongly supported retaining and improving the integrated comprehensive growth management system. When we started, I wouldn’t have bet two cents for that.

Almost all of the ELMS III recommendations were approved by the 1993 legislature. Most of the key recommendations have never been implemented.

I was heavily involved in setting up the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida.

We surprised ourselves, by finding some consensus. You couldn’t find anybody that opposed restoring and sustaining the Everglades ecosystem. Everybody needs the water. Out of this came the $7.8 billion effort to restore the Everglades. The original natural Everglades was four million acres and two million was the maximum that you could hope to restore because the rest had already been built on. We weren’t going to tear down thousands of houses or anything like that.

I think that there’s going to be this real heavy-duty sense of crisis and I think the people of this state will support things that we now can hardly imagine that would result in implementing a meaningful smart growth strategy.

If we play [it] right, the people of this state will support shifting funding so that more than half the total transportation dollars spent are for public transportation. Now that’s happening in some places [around the nation].

The only solution to the sad and sorry and tragic state that our schools are in is a large infusion of smart money. Everyone having anything to do with education anywhere agrees that classroom size is a critical matter and the smaller the better. Indeed, the smaller the school the better. These huge schools do not work well. It gets back to a tax and revenue system that’s totally inadequate to support growth. We need a mandated interaction between schools and counties and then we need a lot of money. We need school concurrency of the right kind and [at] the right place. That’s going to take a little teeth and needs desperately to be done.

We’ve sprawled an awful lot, but not as much as we would have sprawled. We have managed to protect the edges of the Everglades by trying to acquire land east of the dike so that we won’t be hopscotching right on out further into the Everglades. We’re substantially better off for having done what we’ve done than having done nothing.

If we don’t do better on sustainable urban systems in southeast Florida, we won’t have sustainable natural systems and we won’t have either one. That’s true for the rest of the state too.

An audio podcast of this interview will be made available, along with many others, at www.history.ufl.edu/oral/feature-podcasts.htm.

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