Last week Orlando received a late Christmas present from the state government. Or rather, developers working in Orlando got a gift. It was as if the Florida Department of Community Affairs handed Mayor Hood the keys to the new car and told her she had no curfew, since they know she'll be home at a reasonable hour anyway. The gift was the designation of Orlando, along with four other counties and cities, as a "Sustainable Community." City Planning Director Rick Bernhardt called it "a big deal." It was the big deal you never heard about. "It provides an opportunity for the city of Orlando, in conjunction with the state of Florida, to design a better growth- management process," Bernhardt says, "to get more of the results that we're all looking for," like prettier buildings and cleaner water, safer roads and less traffic congestion. The Sustainable Communities demonstration project is a five-year statewide pilot program to allow certain areas full local control of planning and development. For developers in those lucky communities, the local zoning board and county or city commission now will be the last stop before concrete is poured and a project is goes up. Most previous appeals to the state regarding noise, water management, traffic and pollution will be forbidden. Bernhardt emphasizes that the designation will benefit the city, allowing sharp planners (himself, say) to design a program to attract and create jobs for folks now on welfare, to integrate the city and county's planning for schools, and to generally enhance cooperation between and among the various governments. "There are very few states here that are as advanced as we are in intergovernmental cooperation," he says. But Bernhardt doesn't have much in the way of specifics yet. And Kay Yeuell, the conservation chairman of the local chapter of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, fears that the reduced public participation and murky definition of "success" will allow developers to pretty much do whatever they want. In fact, he says, that was the real intention of the law that created the program. "It was a tank job," Yeuell says. "It was primarily done within the confines of the `Department of Community Affairs`. They gave us token exposure and ignored us." The process began last year after the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 2705. Moving to put the legislation into effect, the Department of Community Affairs published a notice in the June 14 issue of the newsletter Florida Administrative Weekly, asking cities and towns to submit "statements of interest" in the program by Aug. 30. Orlando was among the first cities to do so. After all the applications were filed, they were scored by state review teams and the score submitted to the department. The idea of the project was to grant the "sustainable" status to several types of communities -- large and small cities, as well as counties in different regions of the state, to study the impact of the legislation in a variety of settings. Yeuell got wind of the plan last July and began asking for more information. In a series of letters to State Planning Bureau Chief James Quinn, Yeuell raised concerns about the law's vague wording and lack of public hearings. The public was allowed to speak at a Nov. 22 meeting held in Tallahassee. That meeting designed the selection committee that would later name the winners. There were two December meetings, also in Tallahassee, to complete the process. Yeuell spoke only at the first. "We have not seen the opportunity for public participation," he told the state planners. "Except for local planning agencies, the whole process seems to be a closely-held secret. There are no representatives of citizen groups seated here today." But more troubling to Yeuell is that "Sustainable Development" is nowhere defined in the legislation. "They define it by example, basically," he says. "And the examples are bad." This is key to the success or failure of the project, and the omission perhaps suggests something about legislative intent. For example, the legislation requires a participating local government to have an Urban Development Boundary, basically a designation of the area inside of which the government will allow dense development. But Yeuell says such boundaries have not done what they were supposed to do. "It certainly hasn't encouraged infill, hasn't assured protection of key natural areas nor ensured cost-efficient provision of public infrastructure and services," Yeuell told the state planners at that November meeting. "In fact, some feel it has done just the opposite." The trouble with these boundaries is that counties, cities and other small jurisdictions adopt them to quell criticism by environmentalists and old timers, then abrogate them at will. Orange County expands the borders of its urban service area regularly, for example. And Manatee County placed its boundary so far out in the sticks that it is functionally meaningless. The law also marries the lucky winners to already existing local development programs and plans, while saying nothing about the possibility of better, more forward-thinking ideas. Yeuell suggests that a truly sustainable project would explore solar energy, transfer of development credits, the hidden costs of conventional energy and transportation, "pricing potable water as a finite resource like oil," and mixed-use building codes that encourage "traditional neighborhood" development instead of walled subdivisions. (Think Celebration versus, say, Sweetwater Oaks or The Springs.) If this sounds a bit radical, consider: research by dozens of sources -- from obscure planning consortia to the U.S. Department of Energy -- look to these ideas while sustainable development projects in other states have built public participation into the front of their projects. In North Carolina's Research Triangle, for example, the sustainable development program placed the creation of a "regional citizens' forum" second on its list of things to do. In Cambridge, Mass., community leaders met in 1993 and decided to ask the broader population for ideas on sustainable development. They invented something called the Cambridge Civic Forum, and held four large meetings in which local planners and politicians, business leaders and civic groups, educators and community organizers met and hashed out their common goals. This, even before any legislation was written, and nobody there thinks it's a good idea to just remove state oversight. Bernhardt says the Florida model will work fine. "I don't think there's anything inherent that would reduce public participation," he says. "Our purpose might be to have more useful and meaningful public participation. You might not have four or five levels of participation, but you can have more meaningful participation."