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Insider benefits from waivers

The Hillsborough Commission's decision two years ago to waive impact fees on some new construction was supposed to attract investment to many of the county's poorest areas.

For the most part, that hasn't happened. But one person who is profiting from the change is political power broker Ralph Hughes, who makes his living selling construction products and spends his free time advocating smaller government.

The Cast-Crete division of his Florida Engineered Construction Products Corp. is supplying building materials to two large subdivisions being built in Gibsonton, one of the few areas where the waivers have had a discernible impact.

Hughes has given generously to each of the four commissioners who approved the program, which passed by a 4-3 vote. Hughes also was a member of the task force that recommended the program to commissions and vigorously advocated it.

Hughes denies any connections between his work on the task force and his company's projects. He said he wasn't even aware he was in business with the developers of the two subdivisions, which include at least 334 new homes with plans for up to 3,000 more.

The precast lintels _ concrete supports above doors and windows _ that he supplies at a cost of about $400 per home represent a small part of his business, he said.

"In the whole scheme of things, this is a drop in the bucket," Hughes said. "We're statewide. If we never built a house in south county or in one of these impact fee zones again, it wouldn't have any material effect on us either way."

But some commissioners are unhappy with the way the waivers are working.

"This smells to high heaven," said Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt, who opposed the impact fee-free zones. "He portrays himself as a civic activist who is interested in philosophical issues. This shows decisions made by this board benefit him directly."

Platt said she intends to propose ending the impact fee waivers when commissioners discuss water issues at their meeting today at County Center. Both of the new subdivisions are going up south of Gibsonton, a part of the county where commissioners may consider a building moratorium because of dwindling water supplies.

The waiver program was five years in the making and pitted developers against neighborhood groups. It was supposed to encourage construction in economically distressed areas, which would attract jobs and affordable housing.

It hasn't worked that way in five of the six waiver zones, where fewer than three dozen building permits have been granted. But in Gibsonton, the two new subdivisions moved forward quickly.

Meanwhile, other, larger residential developments have broken ground directly across the street from those subdivisions, outside the waiver zone.

"The question is, would the development have occurred without the county's help," said Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank, who also opposed the waivers. "If that's the case, we've spent money we didn't need to spend."

In Gibsonton alone, officials say, the county will lose at least $3-million in impact fees for roads, sewer and water line improvements by the time the waiver expires next year.

Jim Norman, Ronda Storms, Chris Hart and Tom Scott were the commissioners who supported creating the waivers. Hughes, his relatives and close business associates have contributed a total of more than $20,000 to the four commissioners' campaigns during the past two elections. The four have also enjoyed the support of other development interests.

Norman pushed especially hard for the waivers, repeatedly complaining in task force meetings about the slow pace of approval. His recurring refrain was that by waiving impact fees, commissioners would invite construction of businesses that provide jobs to people who needed them, as well as low-cost housing for first-time home buyers.

The lost impact fees would be made up quickly when vacant land that brought in few property tax dollars was converted to stores and houses.

Norman said he doesn't remember Hughes attending the meetings. Transcripts, however, show Hughes spoke at almost all of the major hearings in which waiver zones were discussed.

County staff initially proposed creating two impact fee-free zones, including the one in Gibsonton, as pilot projects. Commissioner Scott advocated including Progress Village. Hart pitched Orient Park. Norman, meanwhile, championed another zone near the University of South Florida.

Commissioners finally agreed in March 2000 to designate parts of six areas that the government considers eligible for assistance because of low incomes. Their approval came over the objections of county staff and Bob Hunter, head of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Planning Commission, who said a financial analysis was needed.

Within days of the impact fee waivers' going into effect, contractors began seeking permits at the Southpointe community off U.S. 41. They had long since secured site plan and zoning approvals.

Attempts to reach the developer, listed as Green Arbor Inc., were unsuccessful. A land use attorney for Green Arbor, Judith James, also sat on the Impact Fee Task Force and had signed a rezoning request for it in 1994. She declined to comment.

Within two months, developers of Kings Lake off Big Bend Road, at the southern edge of the waiver zone, won approval for development plans. Both subdivisions are selling homes priced from about $115,000 to $132,000.

C.I. Babcock III, with King Development LLC, developer of Kings Lake, said his group wasn't aware of the pending creation of the impact fee waiver zone when it bought the property in 1995. But it did affect the timetable for development, he said, enabling builders to sell homes for less than they would have otherwise.

"That means a lot of young couples and people with children are able to afford a first home," Babcock said. "It allows the builders to offer the home at a better value."

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