In an experiment in local governmnet last month, Florida gave five communities, including Orlando, a sort of planning carte blanche. This month, at least 24 more towns and countys who want the same are crying: We're better than them! It was a political fix! Ain't Florida great? Of course, it was a political fix. And the fixers were pretty up front about it. The tragic part is that they didn't fix it enough. The initiative, called "Sustainable Communities," allows the chosen ones to forego almost all state oversight of their new development [see "trust us, says Orlando - and the state does?," Jan 23-29]. You lose at the local level, you get no appeal to the state department of community affairs. This experimental will speed things up nicely and allow local planners to better integrate the city's needs and deed with those of the county, according to Orlando City Planning Director Rick Burnhardt. But environmentalists and other critics see it as a boon to developers who now face, well, at least one less round of criticism from environmentalists. Kay Yeuell, of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, was a key critic in the process. The whole business was conducted in Tallahassee, a sweet deal within a loop of in-the-know planners and state government insiders, he says. In planning, a closed process leads to honest mistakes - and to corruption. Now this very lack of an open process has exposed the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to this claim, from Gainsville city councilwoman Pegeen Hanrahan: "From very early on, it was feared the selection wouldn't be based on merit, but that there would be political considerations." According to the Wall Street Journal, which quoted her, she won't specify what those considerations might be, but she has begun talking to state lawmakers about expanding the pool of communitites in the program. Officially, this is supposed to be an experiment, remember? Now watch what happens: state oversight of planning will crumble as each city and county demand equal treatment. Developer-friendly state legislators will see little reason to oppose their friends. "DCA cut the switch on their own necks," Yeuell says. Because they created a process that makes this criticism easy, "they were a willing participant in their ownâ?¦assisted suicide, perhaps." For the record, the project was supposed to show whether towns and countys could be trusted to plan carefully, looking toward long-term problems like road capacity, conserving open space and fresh water resources. The process was supposed to select five communities - at least three in the South Florida Water Management District - of different sizes and densities. And it did that, technically, with the five chosen - Orlando, Boca Raton, Ocala, Martin County and Tampa/Hillsborough County. The winners were chosen from among 29 entrants by Secretary for Community Affairs James Murley - although the highest ranked, Gainsville, didn't win. "I don't really know why we weren't chosen," Michael Wood, administrator of comprehensive planning for Manatee County (which, despite a dicey definition of sustainable, scored higher than Ocala), told the WSJ. "We try to console ourselves by thinking that they gave it to someone else because they needed it more."