TAMPA — On a busy day of online commerce worldwide, Hillsborough County commissioners debated the merits of a small retail center in rural Lithia.
The end result was a majority of commissioners voted to kill the requirement for neighborhood stores in the Hawkstone development. Under the county’s land use plan, higher-density residential projects in the rural areas must be designed as neighborhood villages with commercial services within the community.
The idea is to build self-sustaining communities in which residents aren’t forced to leave the development and drive more miles, spewing more carbon emissions along the way, in pursuit of basic necessities.
But commissioners justified waiving the required 7,700-square-feet of neighborhood commercial space by noting that shopping habits are changing from in-person retail to online, delivered-to-your home consumerism.
Coincidentally, the public debate came on the start of Amazon Prime Day, a two-day sale in which researchers have projected global sales could top $9.9 billion, more than double the amount from two years ago.
The developer’s representatives urged diminishing brick-and-mortar retailing by asserting that sufficient store space exists to the north in Fishhawk Ranch.
Commissioners Ken Hagan and Stacy White were sympathetic to their arguments, and said the county’s planning model might be outdated.
"That (commercial) provision made a lot of sense back in the ’90s when it was incorporated into policy but ... many sub-sectors within retail are dying a slow painful death. Consumers habits have changed,'' said White.
Buddy Harwell of the Balm Civic Association, however, said eliminating the commercial requirement forces residents in the planned 571-home community to drive more than 5 miles one-way to get to a grocery, gym and other services.
“I think it would be a mistake,"” said Commissioner Pat Kemp. “No one should have to drive 11 miles when they forget a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.”
Eliminating the commercial requirement means "It’s not a planned village at all. It’s just a bunch of houses in a rural area — i.e. sprawl,'' agreed Commissioner Mariella Smith.
But they found themselves on the short end of a 5-2 vote to approve the waiver request from Homes by WestBay LLC. The company is headed by Willy Nunn who chairs the political action committee, Tampa Bay Business Coalition, which last month contributed $100,000 to an election committee for Commissioner Sandy Murman.
Kemp and Murman are vying for the District 6 county commission seat in the Nov. 3 general election. Murman did not speak during the debate.
The company said land designated for the commercial development would be used instead as community green space.