Wimauma at epicenter of Hillsborough land disputes

Developers want to turn farm land into neighborhoods. Commissioners ask, what about jobs?
Businesses and homes are pictured on State Road 674 on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Wimauma.
Businesses and homes are pictured on State Road 674 on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Wimauma. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]
Published Aug. 28, 2020|Updated Aug. 30, 2020

WIMAUMA — Florida Route 674 in southern Hillsborough County leaves the retiree lures of Sun City Center and Pebble Beach Boulevard in the rear-view mirror as it meanders east. Walmart and Wawa sit at the corner of U.S. 301.

As the multi-lane highway narrows to a strip of asphalt in each direction, the national chains give way to Log Cabin Produce, M & C Lawn Mower Repair, competing bodegas, open land and even Casa Sierra where pig hogs are for sale.

Businesses and homes are pictured on State Road 674 on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Wimauma.
Businesses and homes are pictured on State Road 674 on Thursday, August 27, 2020 in Wimauma. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]

This two-lane stretch doubles as Main Street in the rural enclave of Wimauma, a largely Hispanic community closer to Bradenton than to Tampa. Its surrounding agricultural land is now ground zero in a dispute over growth that has triggered both a moratorium on rezonings and a circuit court lawsuit.

Specifically, the county says residential development in the vicinity, at the rate of two homes per acre, cannot proceed unless there is a corresponding increase in employment opportunities. Developers can skip that requirement, but then their building density is cut by 90 percent — to one home for every five acres.

This is part of the county’s land-use rules called the Wimauma Village Plan — currently undergoing an update — that sets goals to revitalize the downtown area, preserve its cultural heritage, offer workforce housing, expand health care and other services and increase employment in a pedestrian-friendly community.

Planners call it live, work and play in the same locale. The idea is to curb commuters from jamming already-stressed highways as they drive from new homes in south Hillsborough to jobs in Tampa or elsewhere.

The development community calls the employment standard arbitrary and capricious and a rule that isn’t contained in the comprehensive plan, but rather is something that just started in 2019 without adequate public input.

Jeffrey Hills’ Eisenhower Property Group wants to develop homes on agricultural acres in the Wimauma area. Last year, on a 4-3 vote, the county commission approved rezoning 591 acres to allow 1,047 homes. The caveat included a provision that Eisenhower couldn’t plat all of its home sites until it demonstrated space for roughly 300 new jobs was available. The company could proceed with 663 homes, the county said, because of existing employment opportunities.

Nine months later, Hills’ companies, EPG1, LLC, Eisenhower Property Group and 301 Wimauma, sued the county, saying the employment rule was illegal because it tied residential development to creating new commercial jobs on other people’s property. It also is counterproductive to the overall goal of the village plan, the suit said.

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“Now residential uses cannot be constructed until nonresidential is built, impeding downtown Wimauma’s ability to flourish,’' the lawsuit alleged.

The companies’ attorney, Darrin J. Quam, of Stearns Weaver Miller, declined comment this week.

The original Wimauma Village Plan, adopted in 2007, is one of more than 20 community plans around the county. Essentially, they are locally crafted rule books for how an area can develop. The Eisenhower suit isn’t the first legal challenge to a community plan. A half-dozen years ago, for example, developer Stephen Dibbs tried unsuccessfully in federal court to dismantle the Odessa-Keystone community plan.

Land within the Wimauma Village Plan is at the epicenter of a dispute in how southern HIllsborough County will grow in the future.
Land within the Wimauma Village Plan is at the epicenter of a dispute in how southern HIllsborough County will grow in the future. [ C.T. BOWEN | Tampa Bay Times ]

During the September 2019 public hearing on the Eisenhower proposal, some commissioners warned of what was to come if the Wimauma Village Plan was undermined.

Wimauma residents “wanted residential development to occur concurrently with jobs and otherwise you would end up with big subdivisions way out past Wimauma, full of commuters driving through Wimauma, through Sun City, through Riverview to get to the jobs and services in Tampa and Brandon,’' said Commissioner Mariella Smith, who opposed the rezoning. “And, that’s called sprawl. This is a big piece of sprawl.‘'

In the aftermath, commissioners adopted and later extended a moratorium on new rezoning applications in parts of the south county until the Wimauma Village Plan update is completed. The moratorium is scheduled to run until June 1, 2021, unless if the village plan is finished earlier.

Related: Hillsborough increases impact fees, extends moratorium

Prior to the moratorium, Eisenhower Property Group had a separate application pending. Earlier this month, it sought to change the zoning on 193 agricultural acres to allow 387 homes. According to the county’s calculations, the area needed 319 additional jobs for the project to advance.

The hearing master who previously listened to the case agreed with the arguments Eisenhower made in its lawsuit — that the Wimauma Village Plan directs the location of development, but not its timing. His interpretation means the job requirement can’t be used to delay zoning for residential development.

“The zoning hearing master is not only wrong in his interpretation of the comprehensive plan, he is out of his purview,’' countered Smith.

Few others were buying the hearing master’s rationale. The Eisenhower proposal failed to gain the support of either the county planning staff or a commission majority, which rejected the plan on a 5-2 vote. Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman dissented.

Again, it was the jobs requirement that triggered the debate.

“The board is essentially holding developers hostage for commercial development on someone else’s property,’' said Hagan.

“Jobs come where people live and I mean it is the cart before the horse. That’s why I was against the original jobs addition to the comp plan because you have to have the density and then the jobs come in. It can’t be the other way around,’' said Murman.

Murman, who is running against fellow Commissioner Pat Kemp for a countywide commission seat, has strong backing from Hills and his affiliated companies. They bundled $15,000 in contributions to Murman’s campaign on July 2, according to records on the Supervisor of Elections web site.

The statements from Hagan and Murman mirrored opinions delivered to commissioners in the previous Eisenhower rezoning case.

“It is not a workable market philosophy to require commercial development before necessary rooftops providing consumer,’' said land use attorney Michael L. Peterson who worked on the Wimauma Village Plan. “Frankly, it’s absurd.‘'

Kemp, however, disputed the notion that rooftops must precede commercial development and job opportunities.

“How’s that been working for us?’' Kemp said in an interview. “You only have to look at the painful mess of the reckless development that’s gone on. It’s just not true.‘'

Voiding the community plan’s provisions, she said, will bring more of the same.

“It’s just a default to what we’ve been doing forever.‘'