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Rural Hillsborough residents grow weary of butting heads with developers

With big stickers affixed to their chests, the homeowners waited as Hillsborough planning commissioners filed into their 18th-floor boardroom. It was time to plead their case, yet again.

"STOP" the stickers read. "IT'S INCONSISTENT, DENY IT."

The same residents at the January hearing had been there just a year earlier. Indeed, for these stakeholders in the northwest Hillsborough community of Keystone, the pilgrimage to the 18th floor has become an annual trek.

Their mission?

To defend the citizen-authored blueprint that was supposed to dictate future development and preserve the country town feel in the area of nearly 15,000.

The Board of County Commissioners approved the Keystone-Odessa Community Plan years ago. However, developers continue to challenge it — a lament heard in other rural Hillsborough communities where undeveloped land is more plentiful than subdivisions and strip malls.

Wimauma residents say a proposed housing development south of Balm Road and east of U.S. 301 does not mesh with their plan.

In Lutz, people feel the same way about a swath of land that was included in the county's "urban service area," potentially paving the way for larger subdivisions in the future.

It should be said that these community plans generally work as intended, and a process now under county review could strengthen the voice of residents.

But in the meantime, communities are weary from the constant tussles.

Said Vivienne Handy, of Wimauma: "The developers keep coming and coming and coming and just beat the citizens down to the point where they give up."

• • •

County commissioners green-lighted the community plan program in 1998. Around that time, homeowners in northwest Hillsborough watched helplessly as Citrus Park mall, schools and subdivisions paved over portions of their rural neighborhoods.

"There were areas where we continuously had controversy," said Gene Boles, who was director of the planning department at the time.

The community-based program brought developers and homeowners to the table to hash out a detailed plan that gave residents a bigger say in their community's character.

It also gave people a choice, said Barbara Dowling, the Keystone Civic Association's recording secretary. "You can live in Hyde Park or you can live where you have chickens roaming around," she said.

Today, there are 20 community-based plans; seven more are in the pipeline.

"The plan is very powerful," said Boles, now director of the Center for Building Better Communities at the University of Florida.

Yet some homeowners question their plans' strength.

"The county was not willing to put real teeth into the language," said Handy, a Wimauma homeowner and business owner. "We would try to get them to have a goal in the plan that says, 'Native habitats will be protected, and they'd change it to say should be.' That should say stronger language so it can be enforced."

Still, she said, "Under the circumstances, it's probably the best that we could have done."

Squabbles between developers and communities have diminished since the program began, said Joe Incorvia, who manages the county's community planning division. "More common are differences of opinion on interpreting the plan or how a proposal may or may not be consistent with the plan," he said.

• • •

Developer Stephen Dibbs refers to community plans as individual "thiefdoms" and says they hinder the inevitable.

"Things have to be changed, said Dibbs who owns 36.5 acres in northwest Hillsborough. "Nothing remains the same."

The developer aims to build a supermarket, restaurants and convenience stores north of Lutz-Lake Fern Road and west of the Suncoast Parkway.

Last year, he founded Keystone: the Great Northwest Business League, a group that strives to repeal the Keystone-Odessa Community Plan. It's unclear, however, how many people are involved.

Dibbs wants the county to return to the old way of doing things: "One comprehensive plan for all of Hillsborough," he said.

This is not the first time that Dibbs has tried to dismantle a county program. In 2007, he led a campaign to abolish its wetlands division. The program wasn't cut, but the county trimmed staff members and relaxed wetlands rules that made it easier for developers to get permits.

• • •

County officials now are considering a proposal that would require developers to hold community meetings and get public support before applying for an amendment to a community plan. They would also have to prove that change is warranted.

"Citizens should be involved in any change to a plan that was mostly a product of their input," the planning commission's Stephen Griffin said.

The planning commission has held four workshops on the matter since August. Its recommendation will be forwarded to county commissioners in July.

Meanwhile, folks in Keystone are organizing carpools for an April 2 final hearing on the Dibbs proposal. (In January, they voiced their concerns, but no decision was made.)

Once again, they'll put on their stickers.

If developers prevail, said Keystone Civic Association president Tom Aderhold, "it would literally erode community plans to the point that we would see sprawl reintroduced in the county."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Rural Hillsborough residents grow weary of butting heads with developers 03/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 4:21pm]
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