TAMPA — Not so long ago, land use meetings in Hillsborough County were daylong affairs, held twice a month, with dozens of people seeking to rezone their land for more intense development.
County commissioners on Tuesday will hold their only land use meeting of February. It's scheduled for just half a day and not likely to take that long, with only a handful of applications up for consideration. No more meetings are scheduled until March 23.
It's no secret that new construction, the lifeblood of Florida's economy, has all but ground to a halt. But the tumbleweeds at local government zoning meetings across the region, such as the one in Hillsborough, are a gloomy harbinger.
They show that people aren't even taking the first steps necessary to begin construction once the economy turns around.
"In my 14 years as an elected official, this is the slowest I've seen it," said Tampa City Council chairman Tom Scott, whose own board just canceled a meeting scheduled for next week to consider developer requests. "I'd say it's an indication that the economy has not fully rebounded."
And it's one more validation of what experts say about the rebound in Florida taking longer than it will in much of the rest of the country.
From Pinellas to Hernando counties, zoning officials report a dramatic slowdown in people taking the first steps necessary to develop their land. Employees that review schematics for new development have faced some of the heaviest layoffs as local governments cut spending due to falling property values.
In largely built-out Pinellas County, the decline has not been as sharp compared with Hillsborough, where new construction raged at a torrid pace in the early part of this decade. Property owners are still seeking modest changes to what they can do on their land, but larger changes are more scarce.
"You're really kind of betting on the economy" when seeking to rezone a piece of property, said Brian Smith, Pinellas County's planning director.
Officials in Hernando County, particularly hard hit by unemployment and foreclosures, say the requests heading to commissioners are typically from small-property owners seeking to subdivide a single lot. Or they are mom-and-pop business owners seeking a minor change that would, say, allow them to add a drive-through entrance.
There, commissioners have folded their monthly land use meetings into their regular meetings, when budget and other government decisions are made.
"We've been keeping a steady pace. Small, but steady," said Omar DePablo, a Hernando County planner.
Stories about Florida's moribund construction industry have focused on the lack of new construction or requests for building permits that immediately precede the arrival of hard hats.
Zoning and land use meetings are where the first steps toward new construction take place, with developers seeking generally conceptual approval for what they can do to their land.
It can be where property owners or development representatives seek permission, for instance, to build homes on quarter-acre lots rather than on half-acre parcels or win approval to build shops as well as offices.
Often, those requests predate actual construction by months and years, and it's not uncommon for development plans to go through multiple iterations. Developers routinely complain it all takes too long, costing them money, during the good times.
Now would seem to be a particularly good time to get a more expeditious review, but few are taking advantage.
"A lot of the people who might want to do that probably don't have the money to do that. People just don't have the money," said land use lawyer Jim Porter of the Ruden McClosky law firm. "It's not cheap to do."
There are application fees from government, of course. And there are costs to hire engineers, environmental consultants and other experts who figure out how to turn that corner lot into a new drugstore and where to put the stormwater retention pond.
Layoffs among government planners have meant that the review is not necessarily much quicker or cheaper.
"If you're a property owner and don't have a developer ready to buy your property, there's no real reason to do it," Porter said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]