Sobering view of Florida

What should Florida look like 50 years from now? Will its current population of 18 million swell to 36 million people, as projected in a study commissioned by the land-use group, 1,000 Friends of Florida? Since the Sunshine State is one of the country’s fastest growing, this projection is not unreasonable.

The study by the University of Florida’s GeoPlan Center was done with the assumption that current development patterns would continue — that is, most new growth will occur on undeveloped land, marching inland from both coasts to meet in the state’s center. Central Florida would explode by 2060 under the study’s calculations, with the I-4 and I-75 corridors turning completely urban. Same for the Jacksonville area. And South Florida? With the exception of Miami-Dade County, both Southeast and Southwest Florida counties would be built-out.

Miami-Dade’s exception is based on whether current policies of encouraging high-density infill projects and preserving agricultural lands stay in effect. Other than Miami-Dade, only the Panhandle would not be facing build-out in 50 years.

The study predicts that roughly seven million acres of open land will be converted to urban uses. Imagine that subdivisions will cover the rolling hills north of Orlando where today there are orange groves. A lot of land that has been preserved by government programs will be surrounded by urban uses, isolating natural areas.

Now the question is: Since we’re talking 50 years from now, why should we care? Most of us won’t be around to contend with gridlocked traffic, diminished drinking-water supplies, forced rationing and other growing pains.

The short answer: Just think how hard it is to navigate the daily work commutes now. Would you wish an even-worse drive to work for your children?

Supporters of this study include the St. Joe Company, Florida’s largest builder, and A. Duda and Sons, one of the state’s biggest agribusinesses. They and 1,000 Friends aren’t looking to stop growth, just to find the most suitable places for it so that land used for agriculture or preservation can be kept intact in big enough tracts to be viable.

They are asking state and local leaders for long-term planning policies that will promote smart growth, not sprawl. During the recent election season, polls showed that voters considered insurance reform, quality education and controlling growth among their top five concerns. What will Florida look like in 2060? The new leadership coming to Tallahassee can begin now to take steps to enhance Floridians’ quality of life in 50 years. That kind of power is rare. Lawmakers should seize the moment.

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