Fight against sprawl centers on proposed development in east Hillsborough

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White opposes a change that would allow more dense development in east Hillsborough. [CHARLIE KAIJO |  Times]
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White opposes a change that would allow more dense development in east Hillsborough. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Feb. 28, 2018

TAMPA — A proposal to allow 131 new homes on rural land in east Hillsborough County has become a line in the sand for some commissioners hoping to beat back further sprawl.

Commissioners are expected to vote Thursday night on whether to change the allowed land use for 164 acres off Lithia Pinecrest Road just east of Fish Hawk Ranch from agricultural to residential. If approved, the number of homes that can be built there would increase by a factor of four.

Two commissioners, Pat Kemp and Stacy White, oppose the change and Al Higginbotham is on the fence. A super majority, or five of seven commissioners, must vote in favor for it to move forward.

If allowed, it would "potentially send the signal that it's business as usual in Hillsborough County, which would be unfortunate in my eyes," White said.

The vote comes just three months after planning experts from the Urban Land Institute warned Hillsborough leaders to squash efforts to increase building density outside the county's urban corridor for at least five to eight years. The county needs time to better plan for growth, experts said, before opening the flood gates to more people in Hillsborough's quickly shrinking rural areas.

That presentation was met with effusive praise by commissioners across the political spectrum, including Sandy Murman and Victor Crist. However, both voted to advance the proposal at its first public hearing in December, one day before the Urban Land Institute's presentation.

The land in question is just east of the boundary of the urban service area, where government functions such as roads and utilities are concentrated and development is encouraged. Opponents of the plan see it as one of the first tests of the county's commitment to hold the line and cautioned that approval would mean de facto expansion of the urban service area. Similar requests from developers will quickly follow, they said.

But the owner of the land, Sandy Lavana, said the allowed usage was changed from residential to agriculture in 1998 after he bought the land and without his knowledge. He added that agricultural use isn't possible there.

At the December meeting, Commissioner Ken Hagan said that the 1998 change wasn't fair to Lavana and more homes there wouldn't hurt the area.

"I think this will actually provide a good transition to the east," Hagan said.

Staff for the county Planning Commission said the land use change was inconsistent with the county's growth plans, but the Planning Commission board approved it anyway.

According to county staff, a development there would mean 1,200 additional daily car trips on Lithia Pinecrest Road, one of the county's most congested roadways already slated for a $100 million widening. Within five years, the local middle school would not have capacity to handle students from the influx of new homes, the Hillsborough County School Board said in its analysis.

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"How can we possibly do this out there?" Kemp said. "It's utterly shameful. It's ridiculous."

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.