1. Archive

TIME TO FACE THE MUSIC // Builders no longer have open road

It's only a 7-mile drive along FishHawk Boulevard to Interstate 75 from Bill Hallman's home.

But Hallman, a computer company manager, knows what thousands of commuters in Lithia know - that if he drives during rush hour, he could get stuck in traffic for at least an hour. And that would be a good day.

"It's terrible," Hallman said. "It's obvious no one has been planning for traffic."

Hallman is in the crucible of a problem that worsened as Hillsborough County postponed dealing with it. The state ordered two decades ago that local governments must either improve clogged roads or block development along them. Hillsborough generally lacked the money for the first and the political will for the second. It exempted the county's busiest boulevards.

But two years ago, with gridlock spreading, the county finally lifted all exemptions.

Development still is being allowed for the most part. But developers are waiting longer to build and finding themselves on the hook for major road work near their projects.

In 2005, developers committed $250-million toward road construction in the county, the most ever.

"Over the past year, I'm starting to hear a harder line," said Bill Oliver, a Tampa transportation consultant.

"It's definitely leading to a slowdown in the industry," said Don Amaden, president of Brooks & Amaden Engineering. "I don't know if anyone knows what this will mean, but it promises to be an interesting year in Hillsborough County." In the late 1980s, tougher development restrictions along congested roads formed the cornerstone of the landmark 1985 Growth Management Act, through which the state sought to force local governments to plan for growth.

Developers feared that the restrictions - called "concurrency" - would trigger widespread building moratoriums. A leading business magazine called it the "Doomsday Clause."

But in Hillsborough County, development slowed only for economic recessions. Building continued on some of the most gridlocked county roads.

How? The new law, while requiring adequate roads before development can occur, let each local government define what was adequate.

Tampa, for instance, doesn't stop development along troubled roads south of Fletcher Avenue on the premise that land there is more densely populated. Because of that density, buses are considered a viable transportation option. If more people take the bus, the theory goes, then fewer cars clog the roads.

Meanwhile, Hillsborough County saw much of its growth, which far outpaced the city's, swallow vast stretches of farmland, pastures and groves. Unlike the city, it couldn't waive concurrency because of density.

Generally, Hillsborough decided roads were adequate so long as their daily traffic didn't exceed their capacity, as measured by standard formulas. But by the 1990s, the county was fudging on most major roads.

"The development community was very successful in getting exceptions, or getting the level of service down to such a low point that it was negligible," said Bob Hunter, executive director of the county's Planning Commission.

The county raised the traffic limit on part of Ehrlich Road to 160 percent of what it was designed to hold. Anderson Road: 181 percent. U.S. 301: 165 percent. Dale Mabry Highway: 169 percent. Waters Avenue: 162 percent. Himes Avenue: 187 percent.

Development boomed.

State regulators objected in 1997, so the county vowed it would lower such limits to 100 percent in 2002. After an extension, the deadline became Dec. 31, 2003. Planners reclassified miles of boulevards from adequate to failing.

"That overnight literally made it much more difficult to do business in Hillsborough County," said Charles White, a transportation planner who manages the county's road concurrency reviews.

Because of this tougher stance, but also because of the amount of growth during the past few years, developers were increasingly told they couldn't build along jammed roads until they waited for the necessary road construction - or paid for it.

Developers bristled and began lobbying commissioners and County Administrator Pat Bean for relief last year.

"For years, we hadn't enforced concurrency rules," Commissioner Ronda Storms said. "Once we did, it's no wonder developers started asking, "What are you doing?' "

One person who withstood pressure from developers was Jonathan Paul, a former transportation reviewer in the county's planning and growth management department.

He joined the staff in 2003 and quickly took a hard line.

"For the first time in Hillsborough County, we started telling people "no,' " Paul said.

But his stance didn't make his job easier. Denying projects only ensured more meetings to justify his decisions. As his load grew, he quit answering the telephone or returning calls, posting a recording that told callers to e-mail him.

"Your workload goes down tremendously when you say "yes,' " Paul said.

He lasted two years, resigning in September to move to Gainesville as Alachua County's impact fee administrator. Paul praised his former supervisors in Hillsborough but said the planning staff is too small, making it difficult to deny a big developer when it might lead to 10 staff meetings down the road. Without an adequate staff, he said, it will remain difficult to deny projects, even with tougher standards.

"Hillsborough County in general is sticking their head in the sand and saying the sky isn't falling, when in reality it is," Paul said.

The map says it all.

County planners created the map to show the roads that carry too much traffic. It also shows which roads are projected to reach overload because of already-approved development.

It's not encouraging. Just about every major county or state route has, or will soon have, too much traffic.

Yet only in the Brandon area has development been severely restrained by the county's enforcement of road concurrency, said Campbell, the county's transportation director in the planning and growth management department.

Much of that area, especially along Bloomingdale Avenue, is already developed, making the widening of roads difficult.

The county reviews about 160 projects each month, Campbell said. Of these, about half are approved by a transportation review committee. Those projects are allowed to begin building. The other half of the projects must either wait or pay for road construction.

Many developers say the county is hampering growth with road concurrency. Since last year, developers have aired other wide-ranging complaints:

The longer developers wait for project approval, the more money they lose.

"What's happening is that zoning used to decide what a developer needed to do," said Michael Peterson, an Apollo Beach lawyer and Realtor. "Now it's only a start. There's a second list of requirements, meaning more time and more money."

Small developers are at a competitive disadvantage against larger builders that can more easily borrow money for roads.

"Some of these guys are unable to make intersection improvements," Amaden said. "So they are put in a position to wait until those improvements can be made."

It encourages sprawl, by shooing development toward roads that haven't filled up.

"If a developer wants to find a place to build where there's capacity, then he's going to go out to the boonies," said Oliver, the transportation consultant.

The county is penalizing developers for its failure to maintain adequate roads.

"We should have put the currency in concurrency 20 years ago," said Ron Weaver, a Tampa land-use lawyer.

Bruce McClendon, the county's director of planning and growth management, said he has heard all of the complaints before and doesn't think most of them are fair.

"Other jurisdictions enforce concurrency," McClendon said. "Somebody negotiated to postpone it for a number of years in Hillsborough. Now they're beating me with an ugly stick for enforcing a state statute and blaming me for not doing it early enough."

Many of the delays caused by concurrency are because developers think they can bend the rules, McClendon said.

"There's still people who think if they ask the right person, they won't have to meet state statutes," he said. "When they find out that's not so, then they have to get a study and wait when common sense should have dictated that they would have needed one."

All concurrency does, McClendon said, is get developers to widen roads to accommodate their projects.

"We're not asking them to fix the roads," he said. "We're just asking them to add for the traffic they're creating."

That's partly why motorists shouldn't get too excited that concurrency will make their commutes easier. It won't.

Take U.S. 301. The county extracted more than $23-million from developers to widen a stretch of the two-lane road to four lanes. But that extra lane space will be consumed by the 94,000 daily trips generated by the projects that the developers are now allowed to build - 9,000 homes and 725,000 square feet of office and retail space.

"This only keeps the congestion from getting worse," McClendon said. "It's not to improve traffic flow. That's done with other funds."

While Paul may have exacted some of the greatest transportation improvements from developers, he said that approach won't meet all of the county's needs.

"If they solely expect the developing community to make up for all of the past sins," he said, "the county will see itself in court forever."