Land-use initiative facing sneaky tactics

You can be sure you're on the right side of an issue if John Thrasher is on the other.

The former Florida House speaker and big-shot lawyer-lobbyist has sent out a mass-mailing to scare voters into removing their signatures from a statewide petition in favor of the ''Florida Hometown Democracy'' amendment.

The Hometown Democracy initiative would let citizens vote to approve or reject major changes to the comprehensive land-use plans in their counties or cities. For the first time, Floridians would have some direct control over how their communities grow.

Thrasher's deceptive and slimy letter is proof of the panic that has set in among those who've made a fortune raping the state and are afraid of losing their sweet ride.

The lobbyist ominously warns that, if the Hometown Democracy amendment passes, ''special interests'' will triumph and ''Big Developers'' will wreck Florida's ``scenic beauty.''

Like it's not happening now?

Special interests already manipulate many county and city commissions -- not to mention the Legislature -- while Florida's green space continues to disappear under bulldozers at the rate of hundreds of acres per day.

What Thrasher neglects to reveal in his fright mailing is that big developers and landholders are the ones most frantically opposed to the Hometown Democracy movement, and that he himself represents some of the biggest, including the St. Joe Co., which is currently selling off the Panhandle.

He says that allowing the voters to decide whether they want a new megamall or condo tower down the street could stifle growth and cause taxes to go up -- another cynical fiction designed to frighten middle-class workers and the elderly.

What really causes taxes to soar is the need for increased services due to overdevelopment and overcrowding. Bad planning means that the public ends up paying dearly and repeatedly for more roads, fire stations, police patrols, water-treatment plants and schools.

Lots of folks in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties will tell you that runaway growth has done nothing but push up their tax bills and diminish the quality of their family's lives.

All over the state, Floridians are disgusted by the failure of their elected officials to do restrained, responsible planning. That's why the Hometown Democracy petition has momentum.

While it might not be the perfect answer to derailing the engine of manic greed that's ruining so many lovely places, many residents are so heartsick and frustrated that they would welcome a dramatic change.

According to the website,, petition supporters have collected about 331,000 verified signatures of the 611,009 needed to place the amendment on the November 2008 ballot.

Thousands more signatures are awaiting validation. The deadline for signing is Feb. 1, only four months away, which has lent urgency to the opposition's propaganda blitz.

Nothing is so horrifying to some developers and corporate interests as the prospect of having to deal directly with citizens when trying to get a building project passed. It's much easier to woo politicians, whose loyalties often can be purchased with a hefty campaign contribution or (as in recent cases in Palm Beach County) outright bribes.

That's the way things have always worked in Florida, which explains the plague of ugly sprawl. The Hometown Democracy petition would throw a wrench in that whole cozy, corruptible process.

Predictably, opponents grandiosely calling themselves Floridians for Smarter Growth have cooked up a rival constitutional amendment that would require 10 percent of voters in a city or county to sign a petition, before any land-use referendum takes place.

The petitions could be signed only at the office of a municipal clerk or elections supervisor, an inconvenience that virtually guarantees a fatally low turnout.

Obviously, the forces behind Floridians for Smarter Growth aren't interested in participatory democracy. They want the public to shut up and let the politicians do their thing.

According to The Sun-Sentinel, the group raised $841,000 between April and August. Major donors included the National Association of Home Builders, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Sugar.

It's a motley roster of special interests whose motives are anything but pure.

The Hometown Democracy movement undoubtedly was the prime target when pro-development legislators passed a law allowing voters to revoke their signatures from amendment petitions.

That opened the door for John Thrasher's specious letter pretending to denounce the very developers for whom he's shilling. In urging citizens to abandon the Hometown Democracy campaign, he blames ''slick lawyers'' for tricking them into putting their names on the petition.

Thrasher himself is one of the slickest lawyers in Tallahassee, and it is he who has stooped to shameless trickery.

His scare letter comes with a postage-paid envelope. Mail it back with the two-word reply of your choice.