TAMPA — Companies are shedding jobs and record numbers of Hillsborough County families are losing their homes to foreclosure.
But the challengers seeking seats on the County Commission this year are pounding a familiar theme: That the board is too pro-development.
They promise better planning, growth management with teeth, and environmental protection.
The St. Petersburg Times asked Tuesday's primary candidates to explain their generalities in, well, concrete terms, and asked how they would balance these goals on the back of a wounded economy so tied to construction.
Incumbents weighed in, too.
Two commission seats are in play Tuesday.
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District 6 at-large incumbent Brian Blair is facing a Republican primary challenge from car sales manager Don Kruse.
As chairman of the Environmental Protection Commission, Blair voted to end its review of development near wetlands, then agreed in a compromise to "streamline" the program.
He has advocated streamlining agencies that regulate growth and eliminating duplication in their work, which he says can be inconsistent and burdensome.
It's not the developers he's backing, he said, but the people they put to work.
"I don't want our children to have to go out of state to find a job," Blair said. "Sixty-five percent of economy is affected by growth, development and industries (that support them).''
He voted against raising school impact fees on new homes two years ago, and has opposed other fees generally.
Blair, 51, said he believes in protecting the environment, but agency heads are prone to empire building, and he serves as a check on that.
The county needs more industry not tied to home building. He has backed subsidies to lure new business and curbing needless regulation to achieve that goal.
"If we don't diversify our economy, we're going to be in major trouble ahead," he said. "The proof you're seeing today."
Kruse, 48, pitches himself as a "conservative who thinks green."
He says that the county could do more to curb sprawl by enforcing current rules. "I don't want more laws," he said. "I want us to follow the laws that we have."
Commissioners don't follow rules that say new construction should take place only where adequate roads and other infrastructure are in place or planned soon, But he will, he said.
Kruse said he supports extending the county's environmental lands purchasing program, which he said also reins in sprawl. Blair does too, but only at half the $200-million the plan calls for on November's ballot.
Kruse says developers should not only set aside land for roads and schools, as some do now, but also for rail. He supports efforts to diversify the economy, and said he would follow in the path of Commissioner Mark Sharpe, an advocate of luring biotech firms.
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The Democrats seeking the countywide commission seat all call for better planning.
Denise Layne, 53, said commissioners exact money from developers to build roads and other infrastructure. But then developers have too much say in where the roads go. Commissioners should be deciding what's in the community's interest.
And she said commissioners treat community plans devised by residents to shape the look and feel of their surroundings as wish lists, not requirements. She said she won't do that.
"A majority of this commission has shifted from working in the pubic interests to (working for) special interests," Layne said.
Along with seeking economic diversity, she said, she will work with the state to promote revenue diversity, so that local governments don't rely so much on property taxes, which she said drives a pro-growth mind-set.
Strip club owner and businessman Joe Redner, 68, said changes to growth rules should be decided by the voters. Neither of his opponents share that view.
He thinks impact fees should be higher to pay the costs of growth. He would allow more dense growth in city centers, with strict limits in rural areas.
"If you restrict developers from building in some areas, they will find places to build where you do let them," Redner said.
He might consider waiving some of the impact fee for residents who move within the county so that the cost of growth is truly borne by newcomers.
Redner said the estimated $2.5-billion cost of a proposed suburban bypass highway should be directed toward building an elevated rail system along existing highway corridors. That would spur the economy, he said. And stricter growth rules will limit runaway development that he blames for economic woes.
Financial planner Kevin Beckner, 37, has attacked Blair as being in the developers' pockets.
He says he would hold fast against expanding the urban growth boundary. He doesn't advocate raising impact fees, but wants to reassess them.
Beckner spoke against ending the wetlands protection program but does not object to how it was streamlined. He would look for more ways to streamline government while defending environmental protection.
He wants to work with the community and varied interests to diversify the economy so it's not so prone to slumps.
"Part of the problem is we have had such a fractured relationship with all these other organizations that we have a difficult time even coming together," Beckner said.
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To better plan for growth, District 2 incumbent commission Chairman Ken Hagan advocates land-use rules to concentrate new residents near future transit hubs. The county should target areas such as along Interstate 4, for economic development, he said.
He backs community-based planning, a decade-old practice of tailoring land-use rules to the character of a community, instead of a one-size-fits all approach countywide.
Hagan said the county should "kick-start" the economy by expediting building permits for several types of construction projects, notably those creating jobs, affordable housing and energy-efficient buildings.
Thus projects would begin more quickly, increasing capital investment, boosting commerce to "grow our economy," he said.
His GOP primary opponent, Keystone Civic Association President Tom Aderhold, says the county has allowed too much growth. "They kept building the need for infrastructure without meeting the need."
Hillsborough should strictly enforce "concurrency," which bars development unless the infrastructure is in place or planned soon. And developers should pay for the infrastructure their projects require, he said.
In a broader sense, Aderhold said the county should gauge how much growth "we can comfortably accommodate" and be willing to say, "That's what we permit, period."
Aderhold said the county also should think long-term about diversifying its economy.
"I would sit down with a whole bunch of learned people" from industries that tend to insulate their communities from downturns, he said. "We would identify gaps in our economic diversity, gaps in education." The goal: economic stability.
"We're hurting because of lack of diversity," Aderhold said.
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.