TAMPA — In one of the first tests of Hillsborough County’s stated commitment to fight sprawl, commissioners are giving a green light to a contentious new suburban development in east county.
The 5-2 decision allows 131 new homes on 164 acres of rural land off Lithia Pinecrest Road just east of FishHawk Ranch. The change in land use from agricultural to residential means the number of homes that can be built there will increase by a factor of four.
The circumstances of the vote were somewhat unusual. The property in question was purchased decades ago by a Michigan couple as a retirement investment. The couple said they didn’t know the county lowered the allowable homes-per-acre in 1998 and the five commissioners who voted yes said they were righting a wrong.
But for the commissioners who voted against it, Pat Kemp and Stacy White, and the residents who oppose the project, the decision was a signal that it’s business as usual for a commission that just three months ago appeared ready to hold the line on further suburban sprawl. And challengers to several commissioners seeking re-election this year say the vote is evidence that change is needed.
"It makes no economic sense," said Kimberly Overman, a Democrat and Seminole Heights financial planner running for the same at-large seat as Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman. "We don’t have good, innovative thinking on the board as it stands now."
Whether sprawl is a campaign issue that can gain traction remains to be seen. But Thursday’s vote drew a surprising crowd to what is typically a highly technical (and usually poorly attended) comprehensive plan amendment meeting. A FishHawk Facebook neighborhood group was buzzing in the 24 hours after the decision, with some residents vowing to vote out commissioners who sided with developers.
Three of the commissioners who voted in the affirmative Thursday are up for re-election: Murman, Victor Crist and Ken Hagan, all Republicans who are running in new districts to restart their term-limit clocks on the commission. White, also a Republican, is running for re-election as well in his east Hillsborough district.
This was supposed to be the year that commissioners reined in the growth moving into rural Hillsborough. In December, planning experts from the Urban Land Institute warned leaders to squash efforts to increase building density outside the county’s urban corridor for at least five to eight years.
The county needs time to better plan for growth, experts said, before opening the floodgates to more people in Hillsborough’s quickly shrinking rural areas. They laid out a strategy for building vibrant, densely populated communities along the Interstate 4 corridor.
That presentation was met with effusive praise from commissioners, including Murman and Crist. Hagan did not attend.
On Thursday, Murman and Crist said their vote was about property rights, and didn’t reflect their commitment to changing growth policies.
"This is merely an unusual situation in a part of our county where (the landowners) were wronged," Crist said.
But Mark Nash, one of several Democrats hoping to challenge Crist, said commissioners didn’t listen to reason. A county study said a development there would mean 1,200 additional daily car trips on already crowded Lithia Pinecrest Road and within five years, the local middle school would not have the capacity to handle students from the influx of new homes.
"Good news is, we can vote out the mega-sprawl commissioners seeking re-election," Nash said.
Growth management promises to remain at the forefront for the rest of 2018. Kemp and White are on opposite ends of the political spectrum (Kemp is a progressive Democrat and White is the board’s most conservative member), but both have made land use a top priority.
Kemp has backed Mariella Smith, a Democrat and long-time environmental and smart growth advocate, in the race to face Crist. Smith said that while land use was once a wonky topic, voters she encounters are hungry to talk about it.
"When I’m on the campaign trail, I get started on it and I get a lot of head nodding," she said. "People are desperate for a solution to our transportation problems and who likes overcrowded schools? They understand we’re spreading out too far."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.