TAMPA — On a triangular piece of land, developers envisioned a retail and office park with second-floor apartments. No more orange groves, no more cow pastures.
The application to rezone the 19 agricultural acres in Valrico for commercial use went in front of several county agencies and officials: planning commission, land-use officer, zoning hearing master.
Every agency recommended the application for approval. But last year the Hillsborough County Commission denied the rezoning request.
Property owner Greg Henderson of GLH Enterprises sued the county for denying the rezoning application on what his attorneys say were unlawful grounds, arguing the case Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court.
"GLH met its burden," attorney Vincent Marchetti said. "It met all of its requirements."
As of press time, the judge hadn't ruled on the case.
The land borders Lithia-Pinecrest, Brooker and Valrico roads. In January 2010, commissioners voiced concerns over the proposed 100,000-square-foot development drawing higher traffic to roads and intersections that wouldn't be able to handle the increase.
But GLH Enterprises' attorneys say traffic issues aren't a legitimate basis for denying the rezoning application, distinguishing zoning entitlements from the development stages.
"All we're asking for are the rights," said Chris Torres, who also represented the property owner.
Traffic and road conditions will factor into later phases, such as seeking building permits, that require separate county approval, the attorneys said. A condition of the rezoning application also called for limiting development to 25,000 square feet until the county widens Lithia-Pinecrest Road, the attorneys said.
The attorneys argued the county's comprehensive plan, which sets guidelines for growth management, includes traffic concerns as an element of development.
Torres pointed out that the rezoning denial came during an election year, when the commission may have felt pressured by re-election amid the turnout of many concerned residents opposing the development.
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At the County Commission meeting last year, GLH Enterprises attorney Marchetti refused an opportunity to remand the application because he said the requirements and conditions had already been met.
Defending the commission's decision, senior assistant county attorney Louis Whitehead III said Lithia-Pinecrest has long been tagged as a failing thoroughfare, and the widening project remains unfunded.
Under the county's comprehensive plan, Whitehead argued, the commission has a responsibility to examine transportation. He noted that the agencies that reviewed the application were wrong to have sent it to commissioners with unresolved traffic issues.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert A. Foster Jr. questioned both sides: Did the commissioners need to give specific reasons for denying the approval?
He asked Whitehead this again and again, until the county attorney finally answered, "No."
Can Foster, as the judge, order the application back to the County Commission for review?
Yes, said the attorneys for GLH Enterprises.
Is it important for Foster to drive down Lithia-Pinecrest Road to understand the conflicts?
Yes, someone in the courtroom whispered.
A dozen of the parcel's neighbors sat through the arguments, wearing red. Residents have protested the development throughout the two-year process, fearing standstill traffic on their streets and glaring shopping center lights streaming into their back yards.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.