TAMPA — Residents usually show up at zoning hearings to protest proposed changes that would intensify development next door by allowing a Walmart or an all-night convenience store.
Carrollwood Village residents turned out in force at a hearing Tuesday to protest a change that would have allowed a cemetery next to their neighborhood west of Dale Mabry Highway.
Commissioners voted unanimously to deny a request to change the zoning on 3 acres of the 18-acre St. Paul Catholic Church land that would have allowed for the burial of its parishioners.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who described himself as an "extremely progrowth" board member whose wife attends St. Paul's, made the motion to deny the change. He said he didn't buy residents' arguments that a cemetery would add to traffic congestion in the area, because funerals are already held at the church.
"However, I cannot imagine a more inappropriate use than a cemetery on this property," Hagan said.
The board vote came despite recommendations from a hearing officer and staff that it should be approved. No review agencies raised objections.
Residents have been protesting the proposal for weeks. Aside from the traffic concerns, some cited the potential that a cemetery would decrease their home values. Attorneys who live in Carrollwood Village and represented their neighbors for free said some people who now have views of trees would look out over gravestones.
But commissioners aren't supposed to reject zoning changes because nearby residents simply don't like what may go there. The proposal has to run counter to county growth and development guidelines.
So the neighbor-lawyers argued that a new cemetery, usually allowed in rural areas, was not compatible with what has become an urban part of the county. That's the argument Hagan seized upon.
"What they're doing is asking for lower density so they can get something you would normally see in a rural area," lawyer Kelly Overfield said after the meeting. "I mean, there's a Chili's right there."
An attorney for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which covers a five-county area including Hillsborough, said they will review options with their client.
Diocese general counsel Joseph DiVito noted that the church worked closely with neighbors who expressed concern and planned a wide buffer between residential streets and the planned cemetery. He said he couldn't imagine a less intrusive proposal to the neighborhood than wide-open green space, noting that the church could now build a day care or assisted living facility on the property and has entertained proposals for the latter.
DiVito said the church has 30 days to appeal to the board's vote in circuit court or could consider a challenge based on First Amendment religious protections.
"The church doesn't do that lightly, so we'll have to assess whether that's something we want to do," he said.