VALRICO — Residents opposed to the proposed big-box store next to the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library have made a decision: They plan to sue the Hillsborough County Commission.
"The time has come for action," Patrick Crump of Valrico told a group of about 80 gathered at the library Monday.
The steering committee members of Coordinated Active Neighborhoods for Development Organization, or CAN-DO, presented a plan to residents to form a 501(c)4 and file a lawsuit against the Board of County Commissioners contesting the 2011 amendment to the land development code.
The text amendment, the group argued, was actually a rezoning in disguise. Unlike rezonings, the text amendment process does not require public input or meetings.
"Because the county chose that process, the community didn't get the notice that it would have gotten if it were a rezoning," said Pamela Jo Hatley, a land-use lawyer who has consulted with CAN-DO. "The citizens were not afforded a point of entry or an opportunity to comment, because it was adopted in the context of a land development code amendment. That's really the problem. The citizens feel betrayed."
The 2011 text amendment changed the property from a traditional neighborhood development to a mixed-use development. The amendment applied to all parcels zoned as a traditional neighborhood developments, but the parcel in contention on Bloomingdale Avenue is the only piece in Hillsborough County with that designation, and therefore the only one affected by the change.
CAN-DO represents Bloomingdale area residents who disapprove of the site plan Redstone Development submitted to Hillsborough County officials outlining a big-box store, five outparcels and 261 apartments on the property east of the library. No retail outlet has been named as the developers have said they are still shopping around for options.
Residents are concerned with the effect the big-box store and apartments will have on home values, traffic, the environment and pedestrian safety — especially for kids walking to the nearby schools.
They have voiced these concerns repeatedly during the past six months, including at protests, town hall meetings and before the Board of County Commissioners. About 400 residents shared their outrage with commissioner Al Higginbotham in June, and others have written letters and sent emails to commissioners.
In a series of emails in August, resident Gretchen King asked Commissioner Ken Hagan questions about the legality of the text amendment, campaign donations and citizen input. In his replies, Hagan answered some questions, said he sympathized with the community and mentioned a letter he sent to Redstone earlier in the summer encouraging them to negotiate with the community, and $5 million he secured to assist with relieving traffic in the area.
"Since there is nothing the County can do to stop this development, and you feel the County acted improperly with Redstone's approval, I strongly encourage you to consider legal action," Hagan wrote on Aug. 26.
Commissioners Hagan, Kevin Beckner, Victor Crist and Higginbotham all received campaign contributions from Jonathan Levy, co-founder of Redstone, ranging from $250 to $1,000. His wife, Karen Levy, also contributed $500 to the campaigns of Crist, Beckner and Higginbotham for the 2012 election cycle.
CAN-DO organizers stressed to people at Monday's meeting that there are no guarantees with a lawsuit: They cannot guarantee how much money will be required (for now, they're asking families to pledge $100), how long it will take or if it will be a success. Even if they were to win, that doesn't mean a Walmart won't be built on that property, said CAN-DO member Rodney Biddle. And filing a lawsuit won't stop the developers from breaking ground.
In addition to voting to form the 501(c)4 and file the lawsuit, the group also wants to form community outreach committees, including those focused on fundraising and advertising. Several people present spoke in favor of working to recruit votes for candidates opposing the current county commissioners.
"While we're meeting and talking, their moving forward and making deals downtown," steering committee member Fred Brown said. "We're trying to protect our home values. We're trying to protect our way of living out here. That's what we're fighting for."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.