Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is putting his foot on the gas by moving quickly to streamline the city's permitting process to attract growth to Tampa. There are plenty of areas that call for reform, and the effort could yield sensible ways to make permitting more efficient. It also could go a step further by laying a foundation for smarter growth. Yet Buckhorn erred in tilting an advisory permitting panel so heavily toward development interests. The mayor and the City Council will have to balance any recommendations with the impact on neighborhoods and the environment.
The committee is a who's who of builders, land-use lawyers and consultants who have had a hand in some of the area's most renowned development projects. Buckhorn said he wanted to hear directly from major players — in his words, "customers" — who have experience in dealing with the city bureaucracy. The group certainly has the technical ability and perspective to serve a useful role. And in establishing the panel, Buckhorn is following through on a campaign promise that all five candidates for Tampa mayor this year vowed to pursue.
Most immediately, the group will look at the city's permitting regimen to explore how it could expedite plan reviews and other steps in the process for obtaining development approvals. Under the current system, applications are bounced between various city departments — parks, traffic, utilities and the like — where they are given a green light or flagged for further review. The system is inefficient, slow and frustrating. No single official escorts an application through the entire bureaucracy. The city needs adequate time to examine a development proposal and the public a reasonable opportunity to weigh in. But the current setup is cumbersome for all sides, and it can be improved without losing public oversight and protection.
Buckhorn also hopes to use the group's findings as a catalyst to energize inner-city development. Here is where the balancing act comes heavily into play. On the plus side, members of the panel have experience in working with higher-density developments, an expertise that could help the city better integrate residential, retail and traffic components in urban neighborhoods. But these changes are about more than retooling the flow chart at City Hall. The City Council could be asked to approve changes in the city's land development regulations. Officials should remember the committee's recommendations are just a starting point for a public dialogue.
Buckhorn could have eased these concerns by naming more than a single neighborhood appointee to the 17-member panel. But the committee's work product will speak for itself. Its members are leaders in their fields and active in community affairs. The presence of newly elected council member Lisa Montelione, who has experience in construction, also helps. The key here is balance. Improving the regulatory process should not require losing sight of the public purpose behind it.