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GROWTH BEGETS GRIDLOCK // Developers' big woes: roads

Clark East was in for a sinking feeling when he began talking to Hillsborough County planners about building a new shopping center on N Dale Mabry Highway.

East already knew he was obligated to fix one of north Hillsborough County's worst bottlenecks, the point where Van Dyke Road approaches Dale Mabry from the east, the same place where East needed to build a north entrance to his center.

He had weighed that two years ago, when he paid $7.8-million for the 29-acre corner.

But the county's needs had changed. Dale Mabry and Van Dyke both were failed roads, carrying more traffic than they were designed for. The county required East's company to add a bike lane, extra turn lanes from the south and north, and new traffic signals.

"Fortunately, we overcame it," he said. "It cost us about a million dollars to do so."

East's project arrived at a pivotal, and costly, moment for developers in Hillsborough County.

Only 11 weeks earlier, at the end of 2003, county planners closed the door on the last exemptions that for 20 years had allowed development on Hillsborough's most crowded boulevards, in spite of a state law discouraging it.

Without such exemptions, building anything significant on avenues such as Linebaugh, Fletcher and Bearss now requires major road improvements by the developer.

Clark East's dilemma was hardened by leases he already had signed, at rents that didn't account for all the road-work expense.

"It's very difficult to go back to tenants after you sign the lease," he said.

But East's five free-standing parcels along Dale Mabry bailed him out. He sold three last year, for a Walgreens and two branch banks. They brought East's company a total of $6.5-million, more than he expected.

The county's stiffer approach to developers like East may stem as much from necessity as from state law.

Hillsborough's economy has boomed for nearly 15 years, generating more jobs, more new homes and more traffic. Yet the county's road-building budget has been controversially thin for almost as long.

Bob Hunter, executive director of the county's Planning Commission, thinks developers should pay more. He says 20 years of underbilling development has given the county a $1.8-billion backlog of needed transportation improvements.

"We've got a freight train coming and we've got to get out in front of it," he said.

Ordinary citizens pay

By last spring, commissioners were hearing developers' complaints that county planners were "extorting" transportation money from them.

County Commissioner Ronda Storms, whose east Hillsborough district has the hottest growth and thickest traffic, decided to press the issue.

She scheduled a commission discussion last May on "concurrency," the state law requiring that adequate roads must be in place "concurrent" with new development there.

"We can raise taxes to pay for transportation, which none of us wants to do," Storms said, according to the county's captioning text of the meeting. "Or we can make sure concurrency works and use the resources that we have."

Storms moved that the commission support concurrency, and her motion passed unanimously.

Whether the county widens a road or a developer does it, ordinarily citizens ultimately pay for that.

Developers pass along their road-building costs in the pricing for their subdivision lots, or the rents for the stores, offices or apartments they build. The higher rents carry through to the people who shop there or live there - and use the improved roads.

In the county's case, the road-building costs come from taxes. The more you drive on Hillsborough's roads, the more county gasoline taxes you likely pay. The more retail items you buy, the more sales taxes you pay.

The Tampa Bay Builders Association and other business groups rallied support in 1999 for a package of increased sales and gasoline taxes, plus hiked developer impact fees, to pay for road improvements in Hillsborough. County commissioners balked.

Joseph A. Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the builders group, said the need is worse now.

"Everybody uses the roads, and everybody should pay," he said. "The gas tax is the best user fee, and that's why it was created."

In northwest Hillsborough, developers of the Citrus Park mall took on road-building the county couldn't afford.

As the mall plans took shape in 1996, all the surrounding roads were two-laners. The county didn't project enough cash-flow to widen them before 2010. So developer Urban Retail Properties offered to do the work up front, accepting repayment from the county.

The county agreed. It committed all transportation impact fees, money required from developers for each home or building, that were collected in northwest Hillsborough until the debt was repaid.

Urban Retail Properties widened 5.3 miles of roads, including Sheldon Road south to Linebaugh Avenue and Gunn Highway east to Lynn Turner Road. The work was finished well before the mall opened in 1999. The county made its last payment last month, for a total of $33.7-million, including interest.

But the mall was more of a growth generator than the county had forecast. County officials had predicted the road debt would take 20 years of impact fees to repay.

Instead, the area's surging development covered it in 10 years. And Sheldon Road, the longest stretch four-laned by the mall project, just joined the failed-roads list.

Hollywood 20 "vested'

Even on a failed road, some developments still can escape the heaviest burdens of concurrency.

A small project is allowed if its traffic won't constitute more than 1 percent of a road's capacity.

A development also can escape concurrency requirements if it's in a long-developed area. This "infill" provision exempted a plan to enlarge a University of South Florida dormitory by 417 beds on the busiest stretch of Fletcher, although many traffic-safety changes were required.

A long-approved project also can become grandfathered, or "vested," against concurrency and other changes in the law that happen before it's built.

The landowner must convince the county that significant money and effort have been invested in planning the project under the prior law.

Vesting allowed the Hollywood 20 theater to open in 1997 on a failed Van Dyke with minimal road improvements. Although the theater is being demolished now, its traffic rights will carry over to the Kohl's Department Store that's to be built in its place.

Counting vesting and infill, there are 17 exceptions to concurrency, said Ron Weaver, a Tampa land-use lawyer.

There may be more controversies.

Weaver complains that failing grades are based on rush-hour traffic, meaning a road can flunk even if it's an easy ride for 22 hours a day.

He and others say the county's hard line encourages sprawl by pushing developers out to newer, uncrowded roads.

"It's the exact opposite of what everyone intends," said Randy Coen, a Tampa transportation consultant.

The county seeks to offset that by limiting the density of development in outlying areas.

Developers' foremost gripe concerns timing. As the march of development brings progressively more traffic to a road, the first developer whose traffic tips the road from D to E gets dunned for major concurrency related road improvements, after his predecessors escaped such requirements.

"If you're the first kid on the block, you typically pay the brunt of the costs," East said.

Developers warn that such policies hamper their industry, and Hillsborough's economy.

But the Planning Commission's Hunter noted that Hillsborough County grew by 32,000 people last year, the largest annual increase in history.

"To my knowledge, growth has not slowed down," he said.

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@spttmes.com.

DEVELOPING PAVEMENT

Here are 10 examples of upcoming developments on failed roads, and the road work the county required before approving them.

1. 198 townhomes

+ Widen 3/4-mile of westbound Linebaugh by one lane

+ Build two turn lanes and a five-lane entrance

2. Office center

+ Four turn lanes

+ $165,000 for future Linebaugh turn lane

3. 511 houses

+ Two turn lanes

+ $350,000 toward improvements at Sunlake and Dale Mabry

4. Office center

+ Two turn lanes

+ Donate right of way along Sunlake and Lutz-Lake Fern

+ $100,000 toward improvements at Sunlake and Dale Mabry

5. Medical offices

+ Extend turn lanes from Dale Mabry

6. Shopping center

+ Five turn lanes

+ Realign intersection

+ New traffic signals

7. Big-box shopping center

+ Build up to six turn lanes; lengthen others.

8. Dormitory expansion

+ Reconstruct 42nd and Fletcher intersection

Build, or rebuild, five turn lanes

9. 78 townhomes

+ Denied until Bruce B. Downs is widened

10. 152 houses

+ Four turn lanes

+ Bike lane, sidewalk

+ Donate 25 feet of right of way

KEY

Deficient roadways

Deficient intersections

Deficient roads budgeted to be fixed

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