St. Joe Exec Named to Head Growth Agency

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 5, 2011 --

An executive at the St. Joe Co., which has led an explosion of residential and commercial development that has transformed the Florida Panhandle, was named late Wednesday to head the state agency responsible for overseeing growth.

The appointment of lawyer, developer and engineer Billy Buzzett to be secretary of the Department of Community Affairs by new Gov. Rick Scott also came with a strong signal that he may be the last to head up the agency in its current form.

Buzzett was a member of Scott’s transition team, which recommended merging the agency with others, and Scott said in a release that Buzzett’s role would be to “better align Department of Community Affairs functions with other functions across state government.”

The appointment also bolsters the pro-growth message that Scott has made his hallmark. Scott came into office promising to spur growth to create jobs. Hiring an executive of one of the state’s largest developers to head up the agency that’s mission is managing growth sent an unsubtle message that he intends for the agency to remove barriers to more development in the state.

“Billy is focused on helping me make government smaller, less intrusive and consistent with efforts to increase investments in Florida and spur job creation,” Scott said. “I am pleased that Billy has agreed to take on this critically important assignment.”

The appointment caught advocates for slower growth off guard.

“Is this serious?” asked Linda Young, who sparred with Buzzett over the new Panama City Airport, when asked to comment on his appointment. Young led a fight by environmentalists against the airport but lost to Buzzett, who helped lead the development of the new airport, which recently opened. Young said picking someone from St. Joe to manage the state’s growth amounted to a “cruel joke on Florida’s planning process.”

The previous head of DCA, Tom Pelham, was often criticized along with the agency more generally, as obstructionist by advocates for growth in the last couple of years.

Pelham responded this week before leaving office in what was a clear shot at Scott and other critics, that there is tons of development capacity already approved by his agency. Already approved planning amendments will allow for more than 1 million new housing units and nearly 3 billion square feet of commercial construction, Pelham said.

Advocates for more growth say Florida voters are on their side. They point the the refusal of voters to pass in November a proposed constitutional amendment that would have slowed growth by requiring local referenda before comprehensive planning changes.

Buzzett, who is a fifth generation Floridian with roots in the Panhandle, was known for smoothing over relations between developer St. Joe and skeptical locals, as the company – once a timber giant and the state’s largest landholder – transformed itself into a developer of its once massive forest holdings.

When St. Joe’s Arvida development arm was essentially kicked out of Franklin County, Buzzett was sent in and won the community back over, resulting in the development of new planned communities there.

Scott made no effort to conceal the fact that he wants the agency under Buzzett to approve more development, saying he was bringing him aboard “in an effort to create the most favorable possible climate for job creation.”

“While at the St. Joe Company Billy led the master planning of over 100,000 acres and entitled over 30,000 residential units,” the release about his appointment said. “Billy understands the large scale planning process and has shown an ability to work with local communities to develop a win-win situation for both the landowner and the community.”

Buzzett worked several years as a civil engineer in New Orleans before returning to Florida to get a law degree and practice land use law. He also was the executive director for the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission, and an assistant general counsel to Gov. Bob Martinez.

Buzzett is also active in the charter school movement and helped create the state’s first charter school.

Also Wednesday, Scott, on his first full day in office, reappointed former Secretary of State Kurt Browning to the same role, and said former District of Columbia schools chief Michelle Rhee would continue to be an informal education advisor.


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