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In battle between residents and developers, zoning master caught in the middle

It's an ongoing battle in suburban Tampa: longtime residents on one side, protesting an unsightly new development they fear will create more traffic, and on the other, developers who want to make the most of their investment in a growing neighborhood.

This was the scene at Monday night's county zoning hearing. Caught in the middle, as always, was the zoning hearing master.

Dressed in a sharp gray suit and striped tie, Steven Luce was charged with keeping order at the meeting, no easy task considering more than 200 angry residents showed up to protest a new Walmart.

As the zoning hearing master, he has 15 days after the meeting to study the evidence the parties present to him and make a recommendation to the County Commission on whether to approve the application.

Because the zoning meetings are "quasi-judicial," Luce is not allowed to speak about the issues before they go to the County Commission.

During the nearly six-hour meeting Monday, Luce revealed little that would convey his opinion about the agenda items.

He heard from each person and group that wished to speak, and gave each party more than the allotted 15 minutes to do so. He made sure that each side had the same amount of time to speak.

He listened intently as each applicant made a presentation, nodding and occasionally asking questions. Then, he listened to each person who spoke in opposition.

The 200 Carrollwood residents in attendance — all dressed in red — came to protest the construction of a Walmart Market and Wawa convenience store and gas station at N Dale Mabry Highway and Floyd Road.

They feared the new store would add to traffic and lower their property values. Additionally, there's already another up the road and plenty of grocery stores in the area, they said.

Because so many people came, Luce had to ask some of them to go upstairs and watch the meeting on television. When their item was up on the agenda, they could return to the meeting room, he said.

"I apologize for having to make that instruction," he told an annoyed crowd.

He addressed the Walmart issue first, even though it was scheduled last on the agenda.

When the crowd booed and hissed at the team of Walmart attorneys, engineers and traffic experts, Luce banged his gavel and ordered them to be quiet. He did the same after they stood and applauded for each person who spoke against it.

He politely ignored the comments the crowd blurted out.

"Would you want it in your back yard?"

"Ladies and gentlemen, please," he said repeatedly.

After more than two hours of presentations for and against the Walmart, he assured everyone he would take all of the facts into account when making his recommendation to the commission.

Each side left him a thick binder full of letters, graphics, maps and traffic studies.

Then, it was another group.

About 50 people, this time dressed in green, protested two new developments in Brandon: a Racetrac station to be built on wetlands along Lumsden Road and a housing development on agricultural land at Brooker Road.

Each developer made their case, and assured Luce that they were doing all they could to work with the local community.

Then, the residents, some who had been in the neighborhood for almost 30 years, stepped up.

"There is already a gas station at that intersection."

"We don't want to look out at our back yard and see more houses."

"The additional traffic will be horrible."

He let them all speak and then called the meeting back to order.

Again, he told the audience he would take all of their accounts into consideration as he was making his decision.

After listening to all the legal presentations, cheering, arguing and whispered protests, Luce called the meeting to a close at 11:30 p.m. and walked away, leaving behind uncertainty and angst.

A resident may have best summed up the night's emotion when he quipped, "You can build it, but we don't have to use it."

Elizabeth Behrman can be reached at ebehrman@tampabay.com.

In battle between residents and developers, zoning master caught in the middle 10/18/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 18, 2012 4:30am]
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