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To cope with growth, Escambia mulls new regulations, fees

New home subdivision.
Gene J. Puskar
New home subdivision.

Escambia County commissioners are considering overhauling local land use regulations and imposing new fees on developers in order to keep pace with the area's growth and the resulting strain on roads, schools and other public goods.

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Commissioner Jeff Bergosh raised the issue during a meeting last Thursday.

"Traffic is the number one issue that I'm hearing from my constituents," he said, "and then, they ask, and it's a legitimate question to ask, why are you approving all this additional residential development when the roads aren't keeping up?

Bergosh represents the county’s first district, which is home to Navy Federal’s sprawling Beulah campus and the epicenter of much of the new development.

On Thursday, he proposed a solution to the problem: “concurrency.” That’s bureaucratic language for making sure the infrastructure and services needed to support new development are in place before shovels hit the ground and, if they aren’t, asking developers to help foot the bill.

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Bergosh cited Beulah as a shining example of what happens when local government fails to do this. Navy Federal has added thousands of new workers to the tiny, rural community in recent years. With all those new jobs has come an explosion of new subdivisions and apartment blocks.

Now, yet another development is underway that would add roughly 400 more households to the tally, and Bergosh said nearby Beulah Elementary School was already struggling to keep pace.

"That school is overcrowded," he said. "They have 17 or 18 portables. They built an eight-pack of modulars. They built a giant new cafeteria. It was designed for 600 students or so, and I think they're pushing 1,000. And, with 400 more houses there, that's a lot more students. So we need to do something."

Concurrency is not a new idea. In fact, it was required by the State of Florida until 2011, when Tallahassee returned most authority for land use planning to local governments in a bid to stimulate recovery from the Great Recession.

Two years later, commissioners adopted a dramatically streamlined land development code and removed concurrency entirely. This was right around the time that Navy Federal announced a $200 million expansion of its Beulah campus.

Though few noticed at the time, the impact of the commissioners' decision has become increasingly clear in the decade since. At last week's meeting, Bergosh said it was time to reexamine the issue.

"I understand we're a growing community," he said. "I'm not anti-growth. I'm actually pro-growth, but it has to be done intelligently. Right now we're the only large county in the state that does not have both the local option sales tax and some form of transportation mobility fees, concurrency, or impact fees."

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Bergosh requested that county staff review how other counties in Florida were approaching the issue. His fellow commissioners agreed, but not without reservations.

Commissioner Steven Barry, who represents the county’s rural fifth district, said developers would simply pass any added costs on to consumers or, worse, stop building as many houses, which could reduce overall supply and exacerbate an already dire housing crisis. Commissioner Lumon May echoed those concerns.

"It's hard for me to put one more penny on somebody that can't afford a house," he said. May represents the county’s urban, third district and is himself a home builder. He said the county should look to more holistic solutions like building more pedestrian infrastructure and incentivizing low-impact development.

"How do we connect neighborhoods to neighborhoods?" he asked. "And (how do we) do in-fill and mixed-use where people are able to walk and get their groceries and walk and eat and walk to work?"

A number of residents who spoke at Thursday’s meeting supported the push for concurrency. Local resident Jean Brown was among them. She’d attended to protest the construction of a new townhome development in her neighborhood, just off of the perennially congested thoroughfare of Nine Mile Road. She and her neighbors said they worried the new development would create traffic problems and change the character of the neighborhood.

"There are problems that are occurring in all five districts," she told the board, "and I think that all of the commissioners are probably seeing more and more things that need to be addressed. The land development code needs an overhaul. It needs to be revised."

T.S. Strickland is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, Entrepreneur and many other publications. Strickland was born and raised in Pensacola's Ferry Pass neighborhood and cut his teeth working as a newspaper reporter in the Ozark Mountains before returning home to work as a government reporter for the Pensacola News Journal. While there, his reporting earned a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors, one of the highest professional awards in the state. In his spare time, he enjoys building software products, attending Pensacola Opera performances with his effervescent partner, Brooke, and advocating for greenway development with the nonprofit he co-founded, The Bluffline.