Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hillsborough developer Stephen Dibbs battles bureaucrats yet again

When wetlands regulators told him he couldn't relocate a swamp to build a northern Hillsborough County shopping center, Stephen Dibbs sued and won permission to do just that. The strip mall and wetland thrive today.

When the same Environmental Protection Commission objected to a Carrollwood subdivision Dibbs proposed, he pushed elected officials to abolish its wetlands office, nearly succeeding. He got to build his houses.

Now Dibbs is back at the battlefront. His target this time is a decade-long peeve: Hillsborough County's community plans, localized rulebooks that specify the type, look and density of new construction.

Dibbs contends the plans unjustly and unreasonably stifle development and promote sprawl, all at the direction of a few "radical, NIMBY activists" and the politicians who kowtow to them. He has filed a federal lawsuit that calls the plans unconstitutionally discriminatory and seeks to outlaw them.

"I'm all for environmental rules that makes sense," he said. "Regulations are often needed, but not to stop growth and progress."

Dibbs' specific beef is with the Keystone-Odessa Community Plan, which covers more than 30 square miles of far northwestern Hillsborough where he owns two large swaths of land. The plan area is roughly bordered by the Pinellas and Pasco county lines to the west and north, the Suncoast Parkway on the east and Mobley and Hutchinson roads to the south.

Residents here pushed in the late 1990s to create the plan, one of the first of more than 20 on the books in the county, as a way to preserve the rural surroundings as suburbia raced their way.

Its preamble sets the tone: "The Keystone-Odessa community will continue to be a rural community, embracing its agricultural past. Its continuing desire is to be an open area that: values nature above commercialism; dark, star-filled skies at night above the glare of urban lights; and, the sound of crickets and frogs above traffic noise."

As novelist and Lake Keystone resident Jim Swain, a leading backer of the plan, put it: "You can invest here and know you're not going to wake up one day and find bulldozers outside your door tearing up what you thought was going to be there."

Among other things, the plan prohibits roads from being widened beyond two lanes. Generally, new homes must be built on lots no smaller than five acres, unless land owners already have vested rights to subdivide their property into smaller plots.

Other components shun opaque brick or concrete neighborhood walls in favor of barbed wire or split-rail fencing. Commercial development is sharply limited to designated areas.

Dibbs stood recently in the middle of more than 300 acres he owns on Lutz-Lake Fern Road near the Suncoast Parkway and argued that the area has long since shed it rural roots. To the south of his property are the pricey homes of Cheval. To the west, the Stillwater community. To the north, Ivy Lake Estates across the Pasco County line. And to the east, the Veterans Expressway and Steinbrenner High School.

"This is about as suburban as you can get," he said.

Dibbs aims to turn the property into a housing complex like those of his neighbors, with stores along Lutz-Lake Fern Road, near the Suncoast Parkway interchange. But he says he is prevented from doing so because the community plan says the houses must be on five-acre lots, something he says he can't sell.

"People can't afford to live on five acres," he said. "They can't even cut the grass."

He steered his 2005 Lexus off his property for a tour of the area's neighborhoods and two-lane roads.

He pulled the first of many cigarettes from a pack of Carlton 100s and fired up as his eyes darted over the signs for subdivisions such as Wyndham Lakes, Keystone Reserve and Keystone Shores.

"That's not a five-acre lot," Dibbs said repeatedly.

"Look at that wall. Look at all these g-- d--- walls," he said.

He pulled into the entrance of Belle Meade, a subdivision with a horse in its logo. "There's no horses in there," he said.

In fact, Dibbs argued, there are no farms left in northwest Hillsborough. If there is a rural feel at all, it's because of the many lakes and lands owned by the government to protect an important wellfield area.

Dibbs, 59, divorced with a grown child, grew up in Hillsborough with his three siblings. He worked for his father making and selling wholesale construction materials.

In his 20s, he started his own businesses selling cultured marble, buying land he held and houses he fixed up and sold. He eventually got into development, though he says he is more of an investor. His best-known projects bear his name, including Dibbs Plaza at Gunn Highway and Linebaugh Avenue, and Dibbs Commercial Center, the strip mall on Dale Mabry Highway built atop the former wetland that he won permission to move in the 1990s.

During nearly four hours of conversation, Dibbs seemed both pensive and obsessive. Friends say both descriptions apply.

"I think he likes to question authority and is willing to take it all the way," said Todd Pressman, a public affairs consultant who has worked with him.

"I think Dibbs is a guy that wants to develop his land without, in his view, the obstruction of government in an unreasonable manner," said David Campo, a developer consultant who shares his views.

Barbara Aderhold chooses different words to describe Dibbs.

"A spoiled brat. The bully in the schoolyard," she called Dibbs."

Tom and Barbara Aderhold are leaders in the Keystone Civic Association. Their home is up the street from Dibbs' other Keystone-Odessa property.

Dibbs not long ago planned a nine-hole, par-3 golf course for his roughly 22 acres, which county commissioners rejected. He recently won tentative approval to build 49 houses, due in part to zoning that predates the community plan.

The Aderholds offered their own community tour, showing off scores of horse stables and ranches ranging in size from a few acres to a few hundred.

"Ranch," said Tom Aderhold. "That's another word for farm."

They stopped by an alpaca farm and hydroponic herb growing operations, a skeet shoot range, bulls in fields, nurseries, scout camps and nonprofit centers where children and war veterans receive therapeutic treatment by interacting with horses.

Dibbs casts the Aderholds, Swain and his wife as "radical NIMBYs No. 1-4.

He noted that the Aderholds didn't buy their Keystone house until 1997, just three years before the community plan passed.

"They've got their piece and they don't want anyone else to have theirs," Dibbs said.

That's a bit rich, say the Aderholds and Swain, who has lived in the community for 23 years. For one detail stands out about Dibbs and his Keystone development ambitions: He bought both of his major land holdings there three and four years after the community plan was adopted.

He's crying foul because he was late to the land rush, they said.

"That's kind of the 900-pound elephant in the room," Swain said. "He bought cheap land. Now he's saying, 'I want the laws changed for me. You're all wrong. I'm right.' "

Dibbs said he was vaguely aware of the community plan when he bought his land. But he said he didn't realize how limiting and inflexible it would be when he tried to develop.

"No one really understood how restrictive they were," he said. "I thought I could just rezone the property."

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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