VALRICO — They deemed it a dream development.
A 6-acre park, architectural input, several acres of landscaping buffers and limitations on time of day for deliveries.
The original design called for a standard Kash n' Karry grocery store at the corner of S.R. 60 and S. Miller Road in Valrico.
But when residents protested the Lowe's that would come with the grocer, the developer tried to acquiesce, meeting for months in the late 1990s with a local activist and Hillsborough County staff.
When the vote came before the Hillsborough County Commission, however, it wasn't enough, recalled Randall Gunn, corporate real estate representative for Kash n' Karry. Despite additions like the park, the activists seemed set on refusing any type of development, he said.
The board unanimously voted down the land-use change.
"Go to that intersection today and you see a run-of-the-mill, grocery-anchored shopping center," Gunn said. "No parks. No limitations on time of day for deliveries. Nothing special with the architecture. Who benefited? Who was looking out for the community as a whole?"
• • •
As the economy rebounds, land owners are again trying to turn empty pastures into lucrative real estate projects such as big box retail outlets and new subdivisions. The projects have drawn the ire of residents around the county, writing a new chapter on the age-old battle between residents who want to preserve a rural way of life and developers determined to bring change and commerce.
At least eight high-profile development disputes have garnered attention here in the past year and a half. Opposition to grocery stores, gas stations and apartments has swelled within communities.
Sometimes, that opposition isn't enough. A Family Dollar opened in Seminole Heights this year despite bitter dissent.
But Carrollwood residents have blocked two cases, one against Walmart, another against a cemetery.
"To me, it was a fundamental disconnect between what the property was, what the community was around it and what the developers wanted to do with it," said Leah Wooten, an organizing member who opposed rezoning for the Walmart.
This disconnect is the backbone of disputes, residents say.
Developers argue it's more complicated than that, with residents wanting growth as long as its "not in my backyard." They view the struggle from opposing perspectives, and some issues, like compatibility, are often in the eye of the beholder.
"There are competing interests," County Administrator Mike Merrill said. "Everyone wants jobs, everyone wants to have convenient businesses, but nobody wants them in their back yards. And I can understand that. So there's a facilitation and negotiation that has to happen early in the process."
• • •
Many of these cases read the same. In a David-and-Goliath narrative, the cash-strapped neighbors band together to fight the profit-seeking developers who don't care about the communities.
That stereotype, Gunn said, is unfair for developers who, more often than not, want to work with residents.
"A developer is a fool if they don't look at those issues," Gunn said. "You want to make things work and to be part of the neighborhood. You want business."
Often, citizens contest a proposal based on a combination of similar reasons: increased traffic, environmental impacts, safety concerns, noise and pollution, and disagreement over architecture and landscaping.
But despite the common framework of these disputes, the success rate for residents varies.
While social media, community involvement, media attention and skill level of the organizers all come in to play, one element seems to have the greatest effect on the outcome: timing.
"You've got to get in on the ground floor," Wooten said. "You've got to be there at the zoning board stage at the latest in order to make it work."
The county mailed notices about a developer's proposed major modification to bring about the Walmart. That required letter allowed them to mobilize, she said.
The county must notify registered neighborhood organizations within a one-mile radius of plan amendments and rezonings. Individual mail notice differs on whether it is in an urban or rural area. The county also places signs on the property and notices in the newspaper, said Melissa Zornitta, assistant executive director for the Hillsborough Planning Commission.
"Each step, things become more firm," Zornitta said. "Once you get beyond (zoning approval), it's even harder. "
• • •
Not every group is able to rally in time. Some, like those fighting the big box store east of the Bloomingdale Library, find themselves playing catchup, trying to undo approvals that have long since been settled. The change to the property in question didn't require notification of neighborhood associations because it was a text amendment to the plan.
"It's more frustrating when the zoning is finished," County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said. "Bloomingdale is one case. The zoning was done in 2003, and those guys have those entitlements or those rights whether we like it or not, and we can't go take it away. "
Still, some are more hopeful that agreements can be reached in which both sides are happy.
In the Carrollwood case, the developer, Brightworks Acquisition, is in talks with residents about what type of development would work best for the area. Though she couldn't share specifics, due to the fact that the lawsuit is ongoing, Wooten said that will likely manifest itself in light retail or a standalone restaurant.
"Of course, does Carrollwood need more restaurants? No," Wooten said. "But that's not our choice if they think they can make money off it . . . we are a commerce-driven society. You can't stop that, and I don't think we should. Better or worse, that's what America is."
• • •
While these disputes might be an unavoidable, inherent part of suburbia, Zornitta said the county planning commission is working to establish a long-range plan with community buy-in to avoid some of these conflicts.
"Having a plan doesn't mean we can resolve all conflicts," Zornitta said. "But we're looking to evolve and see how to get greater participation in these efforts."
The current county-wide plan emphasizes the majority of growth should go into areas surrounding one of the three cities or the county's defined urban growth sector, Zornitta said. Many of the conflicts arise when somebody wants to develop outside the urban boundary.
Even if a piece of land has been zoned for commercial development, often neighbors grow accustomed to a vacant piece of property and don't realize that open plot of land is designated for development.
For developers, it's about responsible negotiation and developing goodwill with the neighborhood associations, Gunn said.
"Every developer should sit down and should try to work with the community, but it's when the neighborhood dictates, 'These are the only businesses we'll accept,' that's when it becomes too much," Gunn said. "I don't know any developer who wouldn't want to put something in to try to make things work. There's just a limit."
• • •
In hopes of getting greater community participation, the planning commission launched imagine2040.org, an online resource for residential input.
Typically, 30 to 50 people attended public meetings. Alternatively, the website yielded more than 3,500 responses.
But greater community input isn't enough, Merrill said.
"Part of it is also changing the land-use process itself, to make it more user-friendly, to really make it more equitable and fair and not give anybody any sort of advantage one way or another," he said.
Merrill described the county as being at "a tipping point." People are frustrated because they are dealing with the results of past planning that didn't go so well, he said. It's hard to change what's already in the ground while also allowing for continued growth.
"As we go forward we don't want to make it worse," Merrill said. "It really comes back to being more sensitive to what folks need. Not everybody is going to be happy, but finding some common ground is really what we need."
Caitlin Johnston may be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.