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Hillsborough planners consider factoring climate effects into land-use plans

TAMPA — For the first time, the Hillsborough County Planning Commission might ask local governments to consider the effects of climate change when strategizing for future growth and development.

The shift in approach would not be seismic. It's just one proposed line in the massive comprehensive land-use plans for Hillsborough, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City that are up for review this year.

And it wouldn't reference "climate change," but rather the less politically charged phrase "climate adaptation."

Here's what the Planing Commission's draft language for the section on coastal management in local comprehensive plans says: "Develop strategies to identify and address issues related to climate adaptation in cooperation with the (Environmental Protection Commission), the Planning Commission and other agencies."

However vague and open-ended, it still would be a notable step for the county, which faces rising sea levels. Scientists attribute that rise to increasing global temperatures from greenhouse gases. By comparison, Pinellas County has included several direct instructions for addressing climate change and its effects in the county's comprehensive plan since 2008.

The decision whether to acknowledge "climate adaptation" is part of the Planning Commission's periodic review of the comprehensive plans, which guide development countywide. The Planning Commission is an independent body created by the Legislature to oversee growth in Hillsborough with appointees representing all four local jurisdictions. Its recommendations are weighed but are not binding.

The commission on Monday listened to a presentation from Charles Paxton of the National Weather Service on the potential affects of climate change on the region. While sea levels rise and fall constantly, the peaks are higher and levels are more frequently above where they were even 50 years ago.

As a result, "systems engineered in the '70s may not accommodate events in the 2000s," Paxton told commissioners.

Still unknown, however, is how high sea levels might rise. Projections vary, and the proposed language would simply provide an opportunity for local jurisdictions to review the science together and determine a prudent response, said Shawn College, environmental planning leader for the Planning Commission.

"That's something that can and should be debated because the different level of response is going to have different costs and benefits," College said.

Along those lines, Pinellas County is in a stage where it is evaluating the data and findings to see if it needs to amend regulations or planning, said Liz Freeman, the county's planning section manager.

To get to that point in Hillsborough, the proposed climate adaptation language must first go through the Planning Commission, where skeptics have already emerged.

"There's a lot of people that do not believe the data is accurate," planning commissioner Gary Pike, a trustee of the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, said in response to Paxton's presentation. "I'm not sure I believe it."

If approved by the Planning Commission, then Hillsborough, Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace will each consider the recommendation for their individual comprehensive plans.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn welcomed the conversation.

"The effects of climate change are real and measurable," Buckhorn said in a statement. "As urban areas, we should take that into consideration for future land use plans, zoning and construction standards."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, one of five Republicans on the county board, said he was not necessarily comfortable with the proposal referencing climate change or adaptation. But he would consider a comprehensive plan that acknowledged the potential affects of rising sea levels when building critical county infrastructure.

"I believe that we can have a reasonable conversation about sea-level rise in a context such that it's not highly politicized," White said. "And there's no reason that conversation must happen in the framework of talking about global climate change."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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