TAMPA — A goal-setting memo from the new chairman of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission has put growth management advocates on high alert.
In an e-mail to the agency's executive director last week, Edward Giunta II laid out a series of cost-cutting measures he'd like to pursue. They include removing planning commission review of everything from historic preservation matters to community plans.
Anti-sprawl activists say he's pushing to dismantle some of the key responsibilities for one of the few entities they trust to stand up to unbridled growth.
"I was shocked at the tone of it," said Terry Flott, chairwoman of the United Citizens Action Network. "It's just so inappropriate. He's got an agenda. I actually fear what is his influence is going to do?"
Giunta, a real estate broker who has served on the commission for eight years as an appointee of the city of Tampa, said in the memo to executive director Bob Hunter that he isn't pressing a personal agenda. The e-mail underscores a desire expressed when he took over as chairman Nov. 8 to solicit the goals of other commissioners.
He said his ideas are shaped by a desire to stay ahead of budget cuts that are likely to come due to declines in tax revenue.
"I'm trying to achieve eliminating or reducing staff workload to where we can absorb the budget cuts without having to reduce work force and still maintain all responsibilities of the planning commission," Giunta said Thursday.
In the memo, Giunta also appears to advocate a Sunshine Law violation by asking Hunter to share with him other commissioners' goals outside of a public meeting. Giunta said he was alerted by Hunter and the commission's attorney that would violate state open-meeting laws and withdrew the request, noting that it was an error.
Giunta listed three goals in the Nov. 10 memo. The last one, with the heading "Simplify Overall Process," has activists most alarmed.
It is followed by two specific recommendations: removing community plans from the county's growth guidebook, known as its comprehensive plan, and "elimination of DCA" — the state Department of Community Affairs.
The county has implemented a series of community plans, which specify development rules for a given area and are crafted with residents' input. Giunta said they have been a disaster, taking years of staff time to create and getting shaped mostly by a few activists rather than representing the will of the community affected.
"It has created significant costs," Giunta said. "The name itself is a farce."
They are indeed the bane of developers, who regularly fight them. A number of community plans are in place already and residents from other parts of the county are waiting in line for the opportunity to have them created.
The reason is obvious, said Barbara Aderhold, a former planning commissioner who helped pursue a community plan for the Keystone-Odessa area.
"The communities want them implemented because they want protection from some of the crappy development that has occurred in the county," Aderhold said.
By getting included in the comprehensive plan, changes are permitted only periodically and must undergo multiple public hearings. Taking them out would allow changes at any time with just one hearing.
"I think it would substantially weaken the comprehensive plans," Hunter said.
As for activists' other concern, Giunta said he isn't seeking for the planning commission to push for the elimination of the DCA, which must sign off on changes to comprehensive plans from around the state. But he said he believes that either the Legislature or incoming Gov. Rick Scott will pursue that.
He said he wants the planning commission to figure out how much staff time is devoted to interacting with the DCA so it can prepare if the state agency is eliminated. His memo seeks similar reviews of the planning commission's work in areas where other agencies play a role in the review, from historic preservation to development permits at the Port of Tampa.
Todd Pressman, a government affairs consultant who regularly represents clients seeking changes to development rules, said he believes Giunta is making a reasonable request. And he agrees with his assessment of community plans.
"You may not agree with what he's saying," Pressman said. " To me, he's taking a fresh and new look at what the planning commission should be doing. That's good government."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.