Every now and then, Volusia County voters like to shake things up. That goes back 50 years, when Volusia County became the second in the state to adopt a home-rule charter. In the 1980s, it led to innovative environmental stewardship, including thoughtful development standards and a groundbreaking land-preservation program, that made Volusia County a model across the nation.
And it happened again earlier this month, when voters took a hard tack away from what many described as Volusia County’s power structure, fueled by a growing dissatisfaction with development pushing into the county’s untamed core. In two of the four County Council races, voters veered away from “establishment” candidates. They also ousted a Daytona Beach city commissioner seen as pro-development. And they gave overwhelming approval to Volusia Forever and ECHO, which (among other things) extend the county’s ability to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive land.
Put it all together, and we have the makings of a mandate: Voters want Volusia County to get its environmental mojo back. Incoming County Chair Jeff Brower and returning Councilwoman Heather Post – who both ran as anti-establishment candidates who won over many of Volusia County’s green-minded voters – could seize a golden opportunity to lead the county toward more responsible, sustainable policies that protect the environment without stifling the economy. It won’t be easy – Volusia County’s broad expanse includes 16 municipalities, and developers sometimes play one jurisdiction off another to weaken regulations and sprawl into undeveloped areas, such as the rapidly developing LPGA Boulevard corridor.
‘That’s not to say all developers are irresponsible – many seek to preserve habitat and buffer sensitive water bodies. But the mishmash of county and city rules – while difficult to navigate – can be easy to game.
Volusia County Council members have a powerful tool at hand, should they decide to use it. The county charter includes a provision, approved by voters in 1986, that allows the council to set minimum environmental standards for things like water quality, wetlands preservation and protection of trees. Once adopted, these rules are meant to cover every square mile of the county, inside and outside city limits.
It never worked perfectly. At times, city leaders defied the minimum standards, and the county never exercised the option to force compliance through litigation. For the most part, however, the standards set higher expectations for development and helped protect natural resources.
Over time, however, County Council members seemed to lose interest in updating and enforcing the standards. Some – like the county’s wetland rule, which was stricter than the guidelines adopted by the St. Johns River Water Management District –…