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Are fee waivers no longer needed?

The county's multimillion-dollar experiment for redeveloping six impoverished areas of Hillsborough is about to expire, but two commissioners are pushing to extend the three-year pilot program by another five years.

Commissioners Jim Norman and Ronda Storms point to the hundreds of new homes built in Gibsonton as proof that the program _ which waives transportation impact fees and water/sewer hookup charges _ is a success that deserves even more time to flourish.

During a public hearing on July 16, they'll try to sway fellow commissioners to let the impact waivers live on through July 2008.

Such an extension could be costly for Hillsborough taxpayers: The three-year pilot has cost more than $6 million in waived water and sewer fees, according to figures released this week.

Another $2.2 million was forfeited in transportation fees, which are collected to pay for road improvements in growing communities.

Extending the program could cost another $16-million in water fees for Gibsonton alone, said Susan Finch, the county's impact fee manager. The estimate is based on counting all the undeveloped lots in the new subdivisions.

The waiver for transportation impact fees is scheduled to expire July 15; the waiver for water/sewer hookups ends Sept. 30.

Most of the waivers were in Gibsonton, where in the past three years, more than 1,000 new homes have been built in communities like Kings Lake and Symmes Grove.

"The rest of the taxpayers out there are handling what they have to, and we're going to let some developers get off free at the expense of the rest of the people if this continues," Commissioner Pat Frank said during the June 25 commission meeting.

She and Commissioner Jan Platt have opposed the waivers all along.

They say the program is an unnecessary incentive: Gibsonton would have developed anyway, because it is one link in a chain of new communities along U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 in southern Hillsborough, one of the last places in the county with large tracts of undeveloped land.

Platt and Frank contend that the impact fee waivers are simply a way to fatten the pockets of developers and other businesses with ties to home construction.

And they worry that cookie-cutter communities will push out the carnival and circus workers who have made a home in Gibsonton since the 1930s.

Supporters, namely Storms and Norman, say the waivers are a necessary short-term investment that will, in the long run, increase property values and bring the county more in property taxes.

Storms pointed to figures showing homes sold in the Gibsonton area are less expensive than similar homes elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area, as proof that developers have passed on their savings to home buyers.

Gibsonton only highly developed waiver area

Of all six areas where impact fees have been waived since the summer of 2000, Gibsonton is the only one that's seen significant development.

While a handful of lots have been developed in the other five zones, including Wimauma and Orient Road, more than 1,000 Gibsonton lots have been developed, almost all of them single-family homes in new subdivisions like Symmes Grove, Kings Lake and East Bay Lakes.

With the impact fee waivers, developers have saved more than $7,500 per home _ nearly $2,000 for water and sewer hookup and about $5,500 for the transportation fee, which is levied to pay for transportation improvements needed as homes bring more traffic.

Norman said the five zones where impact fee waivers have been less successful _ Wimauma, Progress Village, Orient Road, the area surrounding University of South Florida and Causeway Boulevard _ simply need more time.

"It's a redevelopment tool," Norman said. "If you do away with these, those areas never have a chance."

The six areas were chosen because they are poor enough to qualify for federal community development block grants. Storms suggested last week that Gibsonton might not be poor enough now to qualify for the grants; she wants staff to look into the issue and recommend whether Gibsonton should remain in the waiver program.

The water and sewer waivers have cost Hillsborough taxpayers about $6-million so far, and could cost as much as $7-million by the time the three-year pilot ends.

County staff expect developers to pull permits en masse before the program ends, trying to build as many homes as they can, free of impact fees.

Commissioners told staff they want a detailed financial analysis of how the waivers have played out. Finch said staffers are analyzing property value revenues in the six areas, as well as traffic capacity and how it's been affected by all the new homes. "I have a lot of questions," Castor said.

_ Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or