TAMPA — As mammoth subdivisions got approved amid worsening traffic congestion during the housing boom, residents were continually assured by local officials that future road improvements were covered by developers.
In Hillsborough County, no project better illustrated this massive promise than Lake Hutto. Commissioners approved it in 2006. In exchange for building 3,200 homes in Lithia, the developer at the time agreed to $72 million worth of road improvements.
But a month after Gov. Charlie Crist signed a new growth management law, it's unclear if agreements like the one between Hillsborough and Lake Hutto's developers are still in effect.
Those agreements are still the law of the land until local governments rescind them, according to the state's Department of Community Affairs. The problem: That's not how the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied heavily for the law, sees things.
It says that the agreements are nullified. To muddle things even further, a group of cities and counties sued Crist and lawmakers this week and declared that the law illegally shifts road building costs to taxpayers.
Such confusion places in limbo hundreds of millions of dollars developers have pledged for road improvements across the state.
"It's created an atmosphere of chaos," said Rick Harcrow, senior vice president of operations for Newland Communities, which bought Lake Hutto in 2007. "The state needs to provide better direction."
There are 46 large projects in Hillsborough County with development agreements, but local officials are having difficulty determining which ones, if any, will be altered or voided, said Joe Incorvia, the county's manager of community planning. But developers are already asking officials and their lawyers how the new rules change their agreements.
Residents such as Dave Kulow, the spokesman for a homeowners association in Boyette Springs, which is adjacent to Lake Hutto, feel betrayed by Crist and lawmakers. They wonder if traffic can get even worse in this brave new world of growth management.
"They sold us down the river for a pot of campaign contributions from developers," said Kulow, a retired Air Force officer who had opposed Lake Hutto. Still, he said, Newland is more responsible than the project's prior developer and believes the company won't abandon its commitment to widen Fishhawk Boulevard and Lithia-Pinecrest and Bell Shoals roads.
"It's in their own self-interest," Kulow said. "Traffic would be so bad out there that there's no way they could sell homes."
Newland now plans to build only 1,800 homes in what is now called Circa FishHawk. Harcrow said that Newland will pay for the improvements necessary to absorb his project. But because the project is now smaller, the pledge may be less than $72 million, he said.
The company also plans to build 6,400 homes in an Apollo Beach project called Waterset. It carries a pledge of about $70 million in road improvements. But until the dispute over what the new law means is settled, Harcrow said he's not sure how those road improvements will be financed.
"We have no plans to walk away from our obligations," Harcrow said. "At the end of the day, we want to be held accountable to mitigate the impact our project creates."
Harcrow said that could mean mobility fees replace existing agreements. The fees would be a yet-to-be-determined tax on development that would pay for roads, but no one knows yet how the fee would be levied.
The Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida is conducting a study on those fees that should be released in December. It might provide guidance on how the fees can be charged.
Although Hillsborough County officials had written a report after the law passed that said the road improvement agreements with developers were no longer in effect, they have revised the report to read otherwise. The draft now says such agreements are still good and can only be changed if commissioners want to revise them.
While in line with what the state says, the county's latest take on the new law differs from what the Florida chamber and some local land use lawyers believe it says.
"This will be an issue with local governments and property owners," said Adam Babington, the chamber's legislative counsel. "I don't see how this can be resolved without litigation."
At least there's time to sort it out, thanks to a weak economy. Harcrow said Newland probably won't start building homes in Circa FishHawk until late 2011.
"I expect more confusion and chaos with the new law," he said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402.