BRANDON — Commuters driving home through East Hillsborough can expect to see a lot of commotion on the southeast corner of Kings Avenue and Lumsden Road this afternoon.
Opponents of the proposed RaceTrac will be out in force, waving signs proclaiming "A Deal's a Deal" and "No RaceTrac" after a zoning hearing master recommended in favor of approving the gas station following a February hearing.
This isn't the first time the case has been heard, though. Just a few months ago, the zoning master recommended against approving the plan in November. So did the Environmental Protection Commission, in efforts to protect the 1.3 acres of wetlands on the 2.5 acres on which RaceTrac wants to build.
"I think the whole thing was set up to get the answer they wanted," community activist Terry Flott said. "They couldn't get it the first time on the merits of the case. This is saying, 'It's free reign, y'all. If you don't get it, we'll find a way to get around it.' "
This time around, the County Attorney's Office recommended that the issues related to the zoning application be evaluated on their own, absent of any potential wetland impacts. The Environmental Protection Commission is planning its own hearing on the case.
RaceTrac attorney Vin Marchetti said he was encouraged by the recommendation, but disappointed it took several months longer than expected and that environmental and zoning aspects were not initially considered separate matters when it first came in front of the County Commission.
"The County Commission hearing in December should have been on the merits of the case, the zoning," he said.
About two-thirds of the area in question is a designated wetland. While some advocates tried to argue that this area wasn't a particularly important wetland, Flott said that's not the point. Hillsborough County doesn't grade or categorize its wetlands, she said. They're all viewed as important and worth preserving.
"You can't imitate mother nature," Flott said. "It controls flooding much better. This is going to affect many things."
Marchetti pointed to other assets of the development, including about 40 jobs, additional tax revenue and a well-lit business with 24-hour security cameras that would help curb problems with vandalism and theft in the area.
Before the RaceTrac gas station can be approved, it must still go through another County Commission hearing in April and an appeal over the Environmental Protection Commission's ruling, which Marchetti said may be heard in July.
"This has been a time-consuming, protracted matter, in my opinion," he said.
But Flott said such a ruling is a blow to environmental rights and could start a slippery slope that would leave all of the county's wetlands vulnerable to similar action.
"What's really scary is if this is allowed, they have now set the precedent for the entire county," Flott said. "And everyone who had an agreement for a wetland, that wetland is going to be at risk."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at (813) 661-2443 or firstname.lastname@example.org.