TAMPA — After months of postponements and meetings, the owners of a 537-acre sod farm will ask county commissioners in January to rezone land to make way for a Wimauma housing development.
Turfgrass America made its final case during a public hearing earlier this week for creating the Reserve at Westlake. The proposed development is off West Lake Drive, south of Balm Road and east of U.S. 301.
The 537-acre site borders county preserve land and calls for access roads that some residents strongly oppose.
The development would consist of single- and multifamily residences as well as open space and would comply with the Wimauma Community Plan, said James Ratliff, who works with development design firm WilsonMiller.
A 750-foot buffer would separate the development from the Balm Scrub Preserve to the north. Setbacks throughout the development would vary from 200 to 400 feet.
Turfgrass America representatives call the zoning request a "first step," noting that a sluggish economy means construction likely wouldn't begin right away.
They also agreed to reduce the number of dwellings built during the first phase from 500 to 350 units. A total of 1,088 residences are expected to be built.
After developers talked, residents who oppose the project lined up to voice their dissent.
About 15 people spoke, mostly citing the harm that could come to the rural environment. The proposal includes paving a two-lane road, currently used for farm access, through the protected land.
Plans also call for extending 19th Avenue to West Lake Drive. Those who live in the area say that a subdivision would only increase traffic at County Road 674 and West Lake.
A development does not belong in such a rural area, Ruskin activist Mariella Smith said. Not only did developers skimp on providing detailed site plans, she said, but a public road through an environmentally sensitive area would devastate wildlife.
"It is surrounded by essential wildlife habitat," Smith said. "It's ranked 'A' for conservation by (the county's Environmental Land Acquisition Protection Program). This project would devalue our taxpayers' investment."
Others noted that the development would contribute to making Wimauma a bedroom community, and would only add to the county's glut of empty subdivisions. They also said that controlled burns in the preserve would present problems for those living in the development.
"It's always a conflict between public land management and developments in these areas," said David Gordon, a wildlife biologist who lives in Wimauma. "The habitat has to burn on the frequency of one to five to 10 years."
The county planning staff has recommended approving of the zoning change. Commissioners will discuss the issue Jan. 13.
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or 661-2454.