TAMPA — Hillsborough County is running out of vacant land to develop. It is running out of money for new fire stations, roads and water lines. And it is running out of time to stop the culprit: sprawl.
County commissioners heard this message twice in the last three months — first from outside experts, then from in-house staff. Twice, a majority of them nodded their heads in effusive agreement.
Yet between those clarion calls, commissioners twice sided with developers wanting to build more homes outside the county’s urban boundary.
In each case, the man able to move them was Vincent "Vin" Marchetti, a Tampa land use lawyer and one of the region’s busiest lobbyists.
Over the last 14 months, Marchetti registered more than 260 meetings with Hillsborough commissioners and staff — twice as much as anyone else — while representing 27 different clients, according to county lobbying disclosure reports.
And many of those clients have cut checks to the campaigns of county commissioners in the past year. A Tampa Bay Times analysis found Marchetti and businesses he represented donated $127,000 to the four county commissioners running for re-election this year — Victor Crist, Ken Hagan, Sandy Murman and Stacy White.
Here’s another way to put it: $1 of every $7 raised by commissioners this election cycle has come from Marchetti clients.
There’s "no correlation" between the donations and his success with the board, says Marchetti, a shareholder with Stearns Weaver Miller, a statewide law firm. Commissioners, he said, "review the facts of the case and make a decision that’s in the best interest of the whole."
The local building industry has long bankrolled political campaigns. But the commission’s new focus on stopping sprawl will pit their rhetoric against their election-year backers.
Perhaps no other project will demonstrate that tension more than one Marchetti hopes to push through this year: a rewrite of land use code that would allow thousands of new homes in southeast Hillsborough.
The developers behind the project have donated more than $50,000 to commissioners.
"Developers are the mainstay for a lot of campaigns," said Commissioner Pat Kemp, who in her 16 months on the board has often waged lonely battles against new development. "I think we have to have commissioners that will try to stand up and make sure we can afford how we move forward."
"They may be contributing the cost of a campaign, but we’re the ones who are going to pay for it."
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For two decades, Marchetti has been the go-to lawyer for deep-pocketed businesses seeking exceptions. The kind that need commissioners to overrule the comprehensive plan, the Bible that dictates what development can go where.
In conservation circles, just his association with a project raises red flags.
"Extremely persistent," said Rick Garrity, the former executive director of the county’s Environmental Protection Commission, an agency that fought Marchetti and RaceTrac for years over plans to build a gas station on wetlands in Brandon. "That’s his trademark."
Clients like him because he’s detailed and unassuming, said Beth Leytham, a Tampa public relations consultant who with Marchetti represented the developer that brought Bass Pro Shops to Brandon. And as a former senior assistant county attorney for Hillsborough County, he knows the ins and outs of County Center as well as anyone.
"He’s not out there pounding his fists on the table, and I think a lot of clients like that," Leytham said.
When Marchetti brought to commissioners the rare project without opponents last summer, Commissioner Les Miller quipped: "You finally found something that’s not so controversial."
"I’d like to be better known as, ‘Vin Marchetti, the reasonable person,’ " he told the Times in a recent interview. "I’m just representing my clients."
Many of them turn into donors. Eighteen of the 27 companies he represented last year contributed to at least one county commissioner running in 2018.
When Marchetti holds fundraisers for local politicians, his clients are often on the guest list. One for Hagan last year raised $50,000.
Hagan has received the most money from Marchetti’s clients, about $56,000 of his $472,000 war chest. Hagan did not respond to calls for comment. He also did not attend either county meeting about sprawl.
"I have fundraisers for candidates that I tend to support and I ask my clients if they want to attend the fundraiser," Marchetti said. "They either come or they don’t."
Among his clients: KMDGR Investments LLC, the company behind a proposal to turn 164-acres of rural land near FishHawk Ranch into 131 new homes. For the project to proceed, KMDGR needed commissioners to change the property’s designation from agricultural to residential and increase how many homes could be built there by a factor of four.
The project is just outside the county’s urban service area, where government functions such as roads and utilities are concentrated and development is encouraged. In December, experts from the smart growth-focused Urban Land Institute told commissioners to block requests like this, warning it would strain the budget for roads, stormwater, schools and fire stations.
"Don’t do it," said Alan Razak, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer and consultant and one of the institute’s advisers. "You have a precious resource here that you don’t want to squander."
(The last time the urban service boundary was extended outright was in 2016. Marchetti represented the project.)
Razak’s team won the praise of a majority of commissioners.
"This is a long-term thing we need to commit ourselves to," Murman said in response to ULI’s presentation. She did not return calls for this story.
In the months leading up to the vote, Marchetti met 10 times with commissioners. Meanwhile, KMDGR Investments, its owners Reed Fischbach and David Henderson, their associates and other companies registered to the same addresses donated $36,000 to the four county commissioners.
State law limits individual contributions to $1,000, but anyone can skirt contribution caps by donating through a variety of names, addresses and LLC’s.
On March 1, commissioners approved the plan on a 5-2 vote. White was against the proposal, but the other three gave it a green light. They said they felt bad for the landowners, an Illinois couple, because 20 years ago the county changed how many homes could be built there.
Crist said he was surprised when the Times informed him that the developers for the project donated $8,000 to his re-election bid. Of the $78,000 Crist has raised since opening his campaign last May, $22,000 are from Marchetti clients.
"That’s news to me," Crist said. "I don’t look at who writes checks. I’ve got two little old ladies who give their time to handle that."
Valrico resident Linda Meigel said she felt "helpless" trying to fight a project in her neighborhood after learning about Marchetti’s fundraising prowess. Marchetti represents Bridgepoint Lifecare Group, LLC., in a proposal to turn the former St. Stephen Church property into a 260-bed assisted living facility.
Commissioners will evaluate the project on April 16.
"That’s corruption, as far as I’m concerned," Meigel said. "It shouldn’t be allowed."
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Just east of Hillsborough’s urban service area are 15,000 acres with a unique land development code guiding what can be built there.
It’s called Residential Planned-2, or RP-2. Created in 1994, it was a compromise to accommodate developers who wanted to continue to build east and state regulators who wanted to stop unmitigated sprawl.
Developers there have two options: Maintain the rural character by building one home per five acres, or they could construct small "villages" at a density of two units per acre if they included retail, businesses and other commercial ventures that could employ and support the people who lived there.
The idea never really took off and much of the land remains unused.
Marchetti is trying to change that.
He is lobbying the county to allow a 50 percent increase in density — three dwellings per acre — on 4,400 acres, or 13,200 new homes. The application on file with the county also contends that the development would be urban in nature and therefore developers should pay lower mobility fees. These fees are collected on new construction to help pay for the cost of growth and are higher outside the urban service area.
In exchange, developers who build there would have to pay for some community enhancements, like new roads, access to trails or fountains, but would no longer have to include commercial hubs.
He began meeting with commissioners in June on behalf of three clients: Ag-Mart Produce, McGrady Road Investment and Eisenhower Property Group. Between last year and February, the three companies, their owners and companies registered to the same addresses donated $9,500 to Crist, $27,250 to Hagan, $9,500 to Murman and $8,000 to White.
Marchetti said he was not at liberty to discuss the project at this time.
Kemp called the proposal a "stunning, massive change."
"You don’t want that density out there," she said. "You don’t want your workforce out there. Give us a whisper of a chance of locating people near their jobs."
Commissioners voted 4-1 on March 20 to allow the the proposal to proceed to its next phase. Crist, Hagan and Murman were in favor. White was absent but stated his support in a note to his colleagues. Much of the land in question is in his district.
In a statement to the Times, White said his support was merely to allow a public vetting of the idea and he will reserve judgment until he hears all the details. But he saw promise in it.
"It seems that the added density would not look all that different than what is already being developed," White said, "but the modest increase in density would allow much needed — and much desired — community enhancements to be made, all at the expense of developers."
A final vote is scheduled for October, a month before the election.
Several incumbent commissioners face challenges from candidates who have made stopping sprawl the centerpiece of their campaigns.
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Two days after the March 20 meeting, commissioners gathered again to hear a staff presentation. It focused on planning for the 600,000 people that will move here by 2045.
Within two decades, Hillsborough will have used up its developable land, staff warned, and the county can do more to incentivize construction where people already live. Residents are too far from where they work. The right transportation doesn’t exist to get them to where they need to be.
"We believe we’re at a tipping point," said Lindsey Kimball, the county economic development director, "where it will be critical to make sure land use decisions create jobs and housing balance to maintain our competitiveness and ensure fiscal sustainability."
Commissioners said they couldn’t agree more.
Contact Times Staff Writer Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.