NEW PORT RICHEY — A divided County Commission on Tuesday voted to change 5,400 acres at the corner of State Road 52 and the Suncoast Parkway from a new suburban designation to an urban area.
The move grants property owners in that area lower transportation fees under the new "mobility fee" system that seeks to encourage more intense growth in urban areas by offering lower fees.
The 3-2 vote came despite strenuous objections from county growth management staffers who said the area cannot be considered urban. They also worried the move could undermine the mobility fee, considered an innovative growth planning tool.
"Now the talk is, 'Will they be able to hold the line … or will they just allow the peanut butter to start spreading again,' " said Commissioner Jack Mariano, using an analogy for urban sprawl. "This will evaporate all of the good work that you've done in setting it up."
Staffers said the decision would cost the county $22 million in lost mobility fees — once the land was built up over the next several years.
But supporters said the intersection could attract office and industrial businesses who want to take advantage of easy access to Tampa. They said the area fits with the 2008 Urban Land Institute report that spurred the mobility fee.
"This is not peanut butter, this is where (the report) said to put it," said King Helie, a planning consultant representing the landowners.
Commissioners Pat Mulieri, Ann Hildebrand and Ted Schrader agreed to support the request.
"We've got the Suncoast Parkway there," said Mulieri. "There is industrial growth along that road. … It's on the cusp."
Though the land would immediately be placed in the urban area, commissioners voted to delay charging the reduced fees until 2014, when the county is slated to revise its fee schedule. Officials said moving the Suncoast/SR 52 interchange to urban could mean that certain types of fees increase.
But commissioners later rejected a similar request to make 3,200 acres, including the Watergrass development in Wesley Chapel, urban area. Staffers said the loss in fees for the change would have been $11 million.
County growth management chief Richard Gehring said moving the tract would create a "me too" scenario where nearby developers argue for lower fees. If commissioners approved this request, he said, it would be difficult to justify rejecting the others.
"When you move forward with this, just be prepared for all these parties who say, 'I'm just like so and so,' " he said. "Everyone will want you to move the line to get them a lower fee."
Schrader's motion in favor of Watergrass died after no commissioner seconded the motion. Mariano's motion to reject the proposal was approved.
In other news Tuesday, the commission:
• Adopted a resolution lamenting Aqua Utilities' quality of service and calling for the Legislature to create a committee to study problems with privately owned water utilities. Commissioner Jack Mariano, a vocal critic of Aqua, offered to serve on the committee as a representative of local government.
• Gave initial approval to an ordinance to make it easier for handicapped people to get help refueling at gas stations. Currently federal law requires such assistance. Most people honk their horns or flash their headlights to request such help, but that often doesn't work. The ordinance, modeled after a similar effort in Hillsborough County, would require gas stations to post stickers on gas pumps showing the business' phone number so customers can use their cell phones to call for help. The measure faces a second public hearing March 20 in New Port Richey.