TAMPA — The authority to allow someone to turn farmland into single-family home lots rests with the Hillsborough County Commission enforcing its comprehensive land plan, a circuit judge ruled this week, in denying a challenge to a rejected rezoning in 2019.
Cassidy Holdings LLC and four other property owners filed the court challenge after the commission turned down a zoning application in August 2019 that would have turned 17 parcels totaling 449 acres of agricultural land into an 899-home development in the rural community of Balm in southern Hillsborough.
At the time, Commissioner Mariella Smith said the proposal, even though it was called a planned village, did not fit the rural character of the surrounding area. It would lead to urban sprawl, put thousands of more car trips on a substandard road network and strain other services, she said. Only current Commissioner Ken Hagan and former Commissioner Sandra Murman backed the zoning application that also had the approval of the county development services staff and a zoning hearing master.
The court challenge quoted Hagan saying there was no legal reason to deny the application. It sought a petition for a so-called writ of certiorari, in which the court reviews quasi-judicial orders from local governments or agencies.
But Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Carl Hinson denied the petition request, ruling “the record contains competent, substantial evidence that there are legitimate public interests in maintaining the current zoning.”
Commission Chair Pat Kemp called the ruling a “really and truly a watershed decision. It reaffirmed the Board of County Commissioner’s authority. That is so important. It is our authority to uphold our comprehensive plan.”
The plaintiff’s attorney, Hala Sandridge of the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney law firm, did not respond to email requests for comment.
“The board is always concerned about whether or not we’re on solid legal footing if we want to deny a rezoning,” said Commissioner Stacy White whose district includes Balm. “I think this case reiterates the fact that compatibility, the timing and readiness for a rezoning, particularly in that area, are absolutely things the board can hang its hat on.”
The court action comes amid a series of land use disputes in the fast-growing south county area that has brought pending updates to community plans for Wimauma and Balm, a moratorium on new zoning applications until those plan rewrites are completed, and other lawsuits from development interests objecting to commission zoning decisions.
Smith said Thursday she wasn’t surprised by the judgment.
“This county has a public interest in managing growth along with infrastructure to the benefit of our citizens,” Smith said. “And preventing costly sprawl, with its unsustainable demands on infrastructure we can’t afford to provide out in the middle of nowhere.”
Smith said she also hoped the court decision would stem the strategy from “applicants for development like this, bad development proposals,” from using litigation threats to try to sway commission rezoning decisions.
“This time,” she said, “we called their bluff. They took us to court and boom! They lost.”