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Hillsborough to pay $38 million to buy land in disputed zoning case

The 800 acres will be used as an environmental preserve and a possible water treatment plant.
The Hillsborough County Center at 601 E Kennedy Blvd. [Luis Santana | Times]
The Hillsborough County Center at 601 E Kennedy Blvd. [Luis Santana | Times]
Published Oct. 2, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County plans to spend $38 million to buy nearly 800 acres in rural south county and end a lawsuit over a disputed rezoning case.

Attorneys for the county and land owner Ag-Mart Produce reached the settlement in early September after two days of mediation. Hillsborough County commissioners will be asked to bless the proposal Wednesday.

Under the plan, the county will use Environmental Land Acquisition and Management dollars to use some of the land to link existing preserves. It would set aside other parcels for a future water resource complex with the purchase financed by the county water utility.

The commission rejected a request to rezone the agricultural land at the intersection of Balm and Balm Riverview roads in November. The owners had sought a zoning change for a planned development of 1,599 homes and 53,000-square feet of commercial space in an area outside the county’s urban service area.

The areas around Balm and Wimauma are now under a county-ordered moratorium on new development until the community plans for the two vicinities are updated.

Among other things, commissioners cited the proposed development’s incompatibility with its rural surroundings and raised questions about the infrastructure needed to support the project.

"This proposal is in the very heart of the Balm Community Plan which expresses a vision of retaining its rural character and maintaining a rustic atmosphere. This (planned development) would be the opposite of that vision,'' Commissioner Mariella Smith said at the time.

Instead of encouraging rural residential development in an eclectic and diverse mix of housing styles and lot sizes while discouraging suburban scale density, as the county plan recommends, the proposal would have jammed nearly 1,600 homes on 40-foot lots, she said.

The commission turned down the rezoning application on a 6-1 vote with only Commissioner Ken Hagan dissenting.

After the rezoning rejection, Ag-Mart Produce sued in Hillsborough Circuit Court, pointing out the commission contradicted the recommendation from its own professional staff. The commission “did not rely on any competent, substantial evidence to support its decision to deny the rezoning application. Neither the opposing residents nor the (commission) pointed to any technical or expert testimony in support of their scattershot reasons for denying the application,” the lawsuit stated.

The land is bisected by the intersection of Balm and Balm Riverview roads with 471 acres west of Balm Riverview Road and nearly 330 acres on the east side.

The county will use the western property to establish a wildlife corridor between the existing Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve to the north and the Balm Scrub Preserve to the south. When the acquisition is completed, the preserved land will total more than 8,050 acres.

The 330 acres to the east could be used for a drinking water treatment plant and distribution system. The county estimated the location could result in a $20 million savings in future construction costs if the treatment plant is built there instead of on a similarly sized parcel the county would have to buy elsewhere in the area.

The agreement requires the land buys to close by September 2021.