Hillsborough nixes gopher tortoise safeguards. Board didn’t say why.

Building industry objected, calling it “outdated policy” of prior commission.
Hillsborough County commissioners last week rejected a plan to add protections for gopher tortoise habitat in Hillsborough. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times (2016) ]
Hillsborough County commissioners last week rejected a plan to add protections for gopher tortoise habitat in Hillsborough. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2016) ]
Published April 24|Updated April 24

Hillsborough County commissioners have rejected extra protections for gopher tortoises, a threatened species in the state of Florida.

But, they didn’t publicly say why.

They also offered no explanation for killing a proposal to encourage builders to add more affordable housing to their projects.

Both proposals died Thursday night after hearings on amending the county’s land plan. Nobody from the public commented.

The opposition had made its position known ahead of time.

Land use attorney Jake Cremer of Stearns Weaver Miller emailed commissioners earlier Thursday, saying he had several clients concerned about the proposed changes.

The proposals “were priorities of previous commissioners who are no longer on the board. To approve them would be to support those outdated policy directions of the previous board,” Cremer wrote.

Former Commissioner Mariella Smith, who was defeated for reelection in November by Donna Cameron Cepeda, had championed the changes to the land plan.

“It’s heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking. I don’t even understand people who would not want to protect this threatened species that is integral to our ecosystem,” Smith said.

Much of the existing gopher tortoise protections are governed by the state. The county proposal would have required developers to provide a gopher tortoise burrow survey prepared by a state-authorized agent and to report if the developers had any previous violations of gopher tortoise regulations in Florida. The proposal also increased penalties for doing unpermitted work on significant wildlife habitat.

Cremer said the plan duplicated state regulations and ”is completely unnecessary. It increases burdens on staff with no benefit to the county.”

Smith began pushing for the extra safeguards in December 2021 after the state issued an executive order waiving several protective rules on gopher tortoises for 90 days. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, she also cited the track record of Pulte Homes, which paid a penalty in 2021 for destroying 22 gopher tortoise burrows in Marion County, according to Florida Phoenix.

Kemp offered a similar sentiment during the hearing.

“This is just one little piece of extra protection that we can try to give to gopher tortoises,” she said.

The proposal died when nobody seconded Kemp’s motion to approve it. The same thing happened on the proposal to beef up affordable housing stock. Cremer said the minimum household income to qualify for the units needed to be increased in order to get builders to participate.

A third proposed amendment — to change the way the public can participate in zoning hearings and to specify who is eligible to serve as land use hearing officers — was defeated 5-1. Kemp supported the measure and Commissioner Gwen Myers provided the second, but voted against it. Commissioner Harry Cohen was absent from the meeting.

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Related: Hillsborough eases public participation rules on zoning issues

In that instance, Commissioners Michael Owen and chairperson Ken Hagan offered reasons for their opposition, saying the current system worked fine and the changes would be too complicated.

The intent, said Smith, was to increase transparency and public accessibility and to “make it more clear the buck stops here with your elected officials instead of turning over so much of their authority to this third-party hearing officer.”