The Hillsborough County Commission needs to reject today a proposal that contends it could bring "green" technology jobs to tracts of vacant land along Interstate 4 east of Tampa. Opening this property to commercial development would only worsen suburban sprawl, greatly increase infrastructure costs and squeeze the county's agricultural base and the thousands of residents who have enjoyed the rural lifestyle for generations. It is exactly the kind of plan that has prompted an anti-growth backlash such as Hometown Democracy's petition on the November ballot. Instead, the commission should devise a thoughtful approach for bringing high-tech jobs to the city centers.
Commissioners will consider whether to establish a "Green Tech Corridor" along nearly nine miles of I-4 between Tampa and Plant City. Businesses that locate in the 5,800-acre area would be eligible for a range of publicly subsidized fee and regulatory breaks. Supporters say the intent is to attract environmentally friendly industries, which would boost pay scales in the county and curb piecemeal development along I-4. But there is no reason to believe this proposal would do either.
The proposal would not restrict the corridor to "green" companies; the county would also market to manufacturing, financial and insurance firms and even to administrative back-shop operations. Simply building an energy-efficient office could be enough to qualify. The county has yet to determine what types of incentives it would offer. That certainly should be clear before commissioners open up thousands of acres to new commercial development.
Most of the corridor falls far outside the county's services boundary, meaning that water and sewer lines, police and fire protection and public services would have to be extended to any new development. The plan does include a provision for the county to recover these costs. But fee recovery plans routinely come up short. Improvements to roads even closest to the urban areas would cost an estimated $340 million — and that figure does not include acquiring right of way, road work in Tampa or $370 million for road projects in Plant City. And Hillsborough's bus system certainly cannot pick up the slack.
Instead, commissioners should give county planners more time to build on their proposal to create high-tech clusters in and around the county's three cities: Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. These areas already are served by public utilities, and they have more than enough land for the coming years if not a decade to grow a high-tech presence. The University of South Florida area in north Tampa is an ideal place for a high-tech corridor. So is downtown Tampa. Branding I-4 as "green" may be a convenient way to market a desolate stretch of road. But it undermines the focus on building high-tech in places that better serve both industry and the public.