Every winter, Florida beckons seductively. Come to the Sunshine State, America's fantasy land, a place of sand and palm trees, oranges and shuffleboard, alligators and Mickey Mouse, the haven of the Social Security set.
Come to Florida, but be ready for the realities of the 1980s. Be ready for traffic jams and tackiness, drug busts and pollution, eroding beaches and water shortages, 30,173 billboards and 374,254 mobile homes, high rises and real estate hucksters.
Growth has caught up with Florida, and many here fear the state is rapidly becoming a paradise lost.
The population explosion has been phenomenal. In 1940, fewer than 2 million people lived in Florida. Now there are 11 million. In addition, 38.7 million tourists visit annually.
About 3.8 million people are expected to move here by the year 2000. Of the nation's 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas, five are in Florida.
Hardly anyone thinks it is possible to shut off the flow of people, but "growth management" has become the state's hottest issue. And politicians are feeling the heat.
"There has been a revolution in thinking about growth," said Gov. Robert Graham. "We have a fundamental choice to make as Floridians. What kind of state do we want Florida to be?"
House Democratic Leader Jon Mills agreed. "We are a magnet for our own destruction," he said. "People are going to get tired of seeing the billboards and subdivisions. The state's economy and quality of life are at stake."
Not long ago such talk would have been dismissed as the rantings of crazed environmentalists. Florida, after all, has long been a land of go-go growth, a real estate developer's paradise.
But events the last five years have spotlighted the fragile nature of the Florida environment. Nature and humanity almost appear to be conspiring against the promised land.
In recent months alone, for example.
* A record-breaking January cold snap, called "the freeze of the century" by the state agriculture commissioner, destroyed about 90 percent of Florida's orange and grapefruit crop. It was the fourth freeze in five years in some areas, and may have redefined the boundaries of the citrus belt.
The average temperature in Florida has dropped 2 to 3 degrees the last 40 years, according to the National Climatic Data Center. The northern citrus belt can now expect at least one night of 28-degree temperature every two years.
Mile after mile of citrus groves along the Orange Blossom Parkway north of Orlando stand dead and barren. Many citrus growers say they will not replant trees killed by the freeze. Some growers hope to sell their land to developers, adding to congestion and the population explosion.
"Our No. 1 crop now is Yankees. We used to pick oranges. But now we pick Yankees," said Henry Swanson, a retired Orange County agriculture extension agent. "They're easier to zero in on and they don't freeze."
* A rash of brush fires has burned across 120,000 acres in south Florida. On Wednesday, thick smoke from a brush fire northwest of Miami slowed traffic to a crawl on a city turnpike, spewed ashes on the wealthy Coral Gables enclave and cut visibility at Miami International Airport to three miles.
One fire earlier this year raged out of control for four days, killing a forest ranger, threatening dozens of homes and charring 10,000 acres of cypress swampland off Alligator Alley, a highway that runs across the Everglades, near Naples.
Environmentalists charge that the Naples fire was directly related to careless development. It occurred in an area called Golden Gates, site of one of Florida's largest failed land schemes. In the 1960s, a now-bankrupt developer dug 185 miles of canals and built 513 miles of roads on the edges of the Big Cypress Swamp.
The canals lowered the water table, drastically changing the ecology of a 173-square-mile area that had been covered by water up to seven months a year. Brush and grass grew as the wetland vegetation disappeared.
* One thousand people were evacuated from their homes on a 10-mile stretch of ocean front near Vero Beach last November when heavy winds battered the coast. Roads were flooded. High seas destroyed a pier, a restaurant, dozens of beach cabanas and part of a motel. It also grounded a cargo ship.
The damage raised fears about what would happen in a more-serious storm. Florida has not had a major hurricane since Hurricane Betsy killed 13 and destroyed $139 million worth of property in 1965. Many people worry how well structures built during the last 20 years would weather hurricane-force winds.
These are scattered incidents, but combined with other long-term development-related problems they have produced widespread public uneasiness.
Florida, for example, has 29 toxic waste sites on the federal "Superfund" list, a number surpassed only by the industrial northern states of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
It also has serious water quality and supply problems. Officials have found a potpourri of pollutants seeping into the two giant aquifers on which much of the state depends for drinking water, including salt water, industrial chemicals and septic tank leakage.
"I've been telling people for years that we have good news and bad news about water," said Swanson, nicknamed the "Jeremiah of the Citrus Belt" for his environmental crusades. "The good news is that we're all going to be drinking sewage effluent. The bad news is we might not have enough to go around."
Population growth will add pressure on land and water. By 1995, Florida will need 1.9 million more homes, 333 million gallons of fresh water daily and a way to process 6.3 million more tons of solid waste annually, according to state government estimates.
Few states have been shaped so much by greed, or done so little to control growth. Florida was the last state in the nation to pass (in 1939) comprehensive planning and zoning laws; it was the last (in 1969) to allow all counties to engage in planning and zoning.
In 1975, the Florida legislature required local governments to devise growth plans. But The Orlando Sentinel reported last December that an examination of 500 land-use changes in Orange and Seminole counties "shows a pattern of concessions to developers and an absence of long-range planning."
Other states were settled by immigrants seeking land, gold or religious freedom. In Florida's past, land developers played the key roles. The state's modern history began in the 1880s with resort developments by two wealthy railroad men, Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant. Miami was a small coastal village until the 1890s when Flagler built a railroad and hotel there.
Two-term Gov. Graham charges that developers have operated with a "frontier mentality," and have regarded Florida as a "mistress state."
"They saw Florida as a place where they could make a buck and go back to wherever they came from," he said in a recent interview. "We still have an ample representation of that. But there is also an increasing number of people who see a longer horizon of their own self-interest."
Florida has taken several major steps to protect its environment in recent years. In 1983, it passed a water quality act that created a $100 million trust fund to help local governments finance sewage treatment plans. In 1984, it passed a wetlands protection act, giving the state greater jurisdiction over swamps, marshes and flood-plain development. It has also launched a Save Our Everglades program.
Victoria Tschinkel, Florida's chief environmental regulator, said she fears the state may win its environmental protection battles "but still be a second-class place" unless it deals with runaway growth.
Graham and others are banking that the political climate has become ripe for a major discussion about the state's future. The governor plans to offer a package of growth management bills to the legislature when it meets this spring.
The legislature will also consider a broadly worded state plan that sets some controversial goals.
Among other things, the document recommends that the state funnel 85 percent of its future population growth into existing urban areas; purchase 100 miles of new public beaches; halt destruction of wetlands; build a high-speed rail system linking Tampa Bay, Orlando and Miami, and retain prime farm land for agricultural uses.
Graham, however, dismisses talk about Florida's good old days.
"I remember them. I lived here. It was hot. It was buggy. The Everglades burned a lot. I watched the fires from my bedroom window as a boy," he said. "Frankly, I'd rather deal with the problems of 300,000 people moving into my state every year than 300,000 moving out.