Hillsborough stimulus ideas make growth management advocates uneasy

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners are jockeying to get into the economic stimulus game, too.

And that has environmental activists watching anxiously.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan won approval to create a task force last week that will look for ways to goose the local economy. Hagan says he's open to any and all ideas.

But it comes against a backdrop of suggestions from other commissioners. They range from "streamlining" development review to stepping up efforts to recruit businesses that do things other than make homes, so that the next building downturn is not as hard hitting.

Activists worry that a commission viewed as friendly to developers is using the economy as an excuse to gut growth rules and environmental safeguards.

They're taking their cue from Commissioner Jim Norman, who recently likened the crisis to a hurricane wiping out the county.

If that were to happen, the county would "streamline things beyond belief. You would get our community restarted again," Norman said. "We're almost are at the point to have an economic state of emergency."

Other commissioners chimed in their agreement.

In other words, wrote activist and blogger Mariella Smith, the county's solution for getting out of our recessionary hole is to dig deeper and faster. Her column carried the headline: "Your county's solution to housing glut: more housing."

There is an estimated 20-month backlog of homes for sale in the region, according to the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors.

Norman said in a followup meeting and interview that he's not looking to end regulation. Nor is he looking to build houses only, he said. But he said the county is still failing to review development requests quickly enough, an ongoing gripe of his and other commissioners

However, the county has hundreds of other permits and site plans that have been approved but have not been picked up by the people who requested them. Norman wants county employees to call those folks and ask what's holding them up.

"You've got to have people with cash in their pocket so they can qualify for loans," Norman said. "And that inventory will be eaten up."

Terry Flott, chairwoman of United Citizens' Action Network, which advocates for controlled growth, said she isn't buying Norman's amended comments.

"He's speaking out of both sides of his mouth," Flott said. "He did say we're going to have to look at ways to streamline, and streamline is a code word we all know."

Her anxiety may not be without cause. Already state lawmakers are floating a variety of bills to scale back development review in the name of streamlining and sparking construction.

Even some commissioners have voiced concern with where the county might head.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he will not support easing regulation to spur short-term building for action's sake.

"To say we're going to fire up the engine to get us where we were before is a huge mistake," Sharpe said.

He has advocated a greater emphasis on offering incentives to businesses that diversify Hillsborough's job base.

The county should place a premium on helping businesses that create a diverse array of jobs, which then create a market for new stores and restaurants and add to the tax base to build roads and schools, he said.

He supported Hagan's task force, which he said he believes is taking a longer view.

The 13-member economic stimulus task force created last week includes representatives from land development and manufacturing, to technology and financial services. It could begin meeting next week and present initial recommendations within 90 days.

Hagan said he has three priorities: creating jobs; showing that Hillsborough is "open for business"; and developing "long-term" strategies to ensure business takes off when the economy rebounds.

Hagan led a similar task force on transportation that won approval to fast-track spending $500-million on road work. He said the focus of the new panel is not to build more homes.

Just the same, he said he's open to ideas that include offering incentives and speeding up the review time for projects that create jobs and are "sustainable."

That might mean offering incentives to one business that builds solar panels but not another that needs massive amounts of water for operations, said Bob Abberger, who is chairing the group.

Mass transit should also be on the table, he said.

Abberger, a senior executive for developer Trammell Crow's Florida operations, has served on several community panels, particularly in the area of transportation. He emphasized the need to ensure Hillsborough is ready when Florida's economy rebounds.

That could mean, for instance, waiving the expiration date for people who have won permits to build but have seen their financing stall. When those permits expire, it decreases land value, which makes it harder to secure loans, creating a debilitating spiral.

"Now's the opportunity to show corporate America we are progressive about solving our problems," Abberger said.

"I know that there's a concern in the community that we just want to open a Pandora's box. That's not the case," he added. "We're not here to promote sprawl or nuking wetlands."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough stimulus ideas make growth management advocates uneasy 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 10:19pm]

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