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New zone to exclude impact fees supported

Ruskin residents made it clear this week that they don't like the proposed impact fee-free zone in their community.

But the group hotly debated how the lines should be redrawn. Most wanted to include only Ruskin's commercial center. Others wanted incentives in residential areas.

The program waives fees normally paid by builders to improve roads and connect to county water and sewer lines. Supporters of the program say waiving those fees encourages growth in depressed areas, lowers home prices and increases property tax revenues. Opponents say it's a handout for developers and costs the county Millions in money for roads and other basic services.

Hillsborough County's three-year no-impact zone program expired last month, and County Commissioners are working out the details for a new five-year program. On Oct. 21, commissioners approved no-fee zones for the University of South Florida, Palm River, Gibsonton and Wimauma areas.

The board also voted to delay decisions on Ruskin and Causeway no-fee zones. Commissioners want staff to review the Causeway boundary and make sure the public received proper notice about the Oct. 21 meeting.

They also want feedback from Ruskin residents before making a decision on the no-fee zone there. Commissioners will reconsider both zones at the land-use meeting Nov. 18.

Participants at Monday's meeting, attended by about 50 people, wanted to know why developers need encouragement to build in an already attractive area.

Ruskin resident Ron Wolfe pointed out that fewer than 100 homes were built in the Ruskin area from 1999 to 2003. Thousands have been proposed for the coming years.

"People are reeling from the numbers," Wolfe said.

The proposed zone, said county impact fee manager Susan Finch, was selected because it's in a Community Development Block Grant area and its roads have the capacity to handle more traffic. CDBG areas are those that qualify for federal funding for transportation and water projects because the average income is 80 percent of median levels.

The intent, she said, is to make it less expensive to build homes so that cost-savings can be passed on to people who might not otherwise be able to afford a home.

The pilot program, which ended in September, cost the county some $8-million in water and sewer hookup charges and more than $2-million in forfeited transportation fees.

As drawn now, the 4,000-acre Ruskin zone is bordered roughly by Shell Point Road and College Avenue on the north, the Little Manatee River on the west and south, and Interstate 75 on the west.

Nearly 7,000 homes are approved or up for approval in the area surrounding the zone.

After much discussion, the 30-some Ruskin-area residents, most of whom were members of the working committee for the Ruskin Community Plan, agreed they'd like to see the impact fee-free zone reduced in size but shifted to include two streets east and west of U.S. 41 from 19th Avenue to the Little Manatee River and a 50-acre affordable housing project on 24th Street and 14th Avenue SE near the Ruskin weather station. That would cover the community's commercial center, which needs encouragement to grow, said Ruskin resident Wade Clark.

Clark said he and the other committee members aren't opposed to the growth in Ruskin.

"Our concern," he said, "has been all along that whatever we do here is done with a semblance of order."