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Hillsborough plan would reduce home-building tied to wetlands

A proposed ordinance eliminates extra credit for developers whose land includes protected wetlands

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County commissioner says an ongoing public policy debate calls to mind an old adage poking fun at individual gullibility.

“I’ve got some swamp land in Florida to sell you,” says Commissioner Mariella Smith. “You know, because swamp land is supposed to be undevelopable.”

Undevelopable, but not unprofitable. Under county rules, developers gain credits to construct extra houses elsewhere on their property if some of their land is too wet to build upon.

“There is no reason why we should be giving development credits for swamp land,” Smith told the rest of the commission earlier this month.

There now is a plan to change that. A proposal from Commission Chair Pat Kemp would end the practice of issuing environmental credits in the fast-growing south county. The commission agreed unanimously on Dec. 16 to draft the proposed ordinance which still requires a public hearing and final vote at a date to be determined.

The issue comes with the government vernacular of “wetlands density credits’' and “transfer development rights.” But, if approved, the change would provide one clarity — fewer homes could be built in the future in Wimauma and Balm.

Related: Wimauma at epicenter of Hillsborough land disputes

Conceivably, the change, if enacted countywide, could remove nearly 50,000 future home sites from Hillsborough County, including more than 30,000 from locales like Wimauma and Balm that are outside the urban service area, according to estimates from the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission.

Under a recent scenario provided by the planning commission staff, here is how the rule works: A development company owns 180 acres and is entitled to build two homes per acre. But 35 percent of the land, 64 acres, is considered wetlands or environmentally sensitive land, and is safeguarded from construction. Under a traditional standard, the developer could build 232 homes on the 116 acres of uplands. But, Hillsborough County provides a credit for the undisturbed wetlands, allowing the developer to increase its home-building capacity by 25 percent, and construct 290 houses on the 116 acres.

“They monetize these wetlands you couldn’t otherwise build on,” said Kemp.

The credit goes to property owners whose land is at least 25 percent wetlands. Developers with less than a quarter of their land safeguarded operate under a more generous formula that calculates housing density based on gross acres, not just uplands. So a 100-acre parcel with 20 percent wetlands still could be home to two houses per gross acre, or 200 homes.

Critics contend the wetlands credit allows developers to build more homes than should be expected in the rural areas of the county and is detrimental to the environment, because it packs more intensive development close to protected wetlands.

“There’s too many density giveaways right now and very little incentive for developers to do the right thing for our communities by way of community benefits,” said Vivenne Handy of Wimauma.

The development community, however, says the density boost allows Hillsborough to remain competitive with other locales like Pasco and Manatee counties, both of which have similar wetland credit rules.

The credit, said land use and environmental attorney Jacob Cremer, shouldn’t be construed as a bonus, but as a way to reduce a punitive formula applied to the owner of a property that is one-quarter wetlands.

Without the credit, the owner of 100 acres that is 24 percent wetlands could still build 200 homes, while a 100-acre parcel that is 25 percent wetlands could only hold 150 homes. With the credit, the density on the second parcel climbs to 187 homes.

The rule also carries no environmental dangers, Cremer said, because the number of developed acres within a project doesn’t grow larger; rather, the individual home lot sizes shrink to maintain a status quo footprint.

And taking away the credit could mean pricier homes, while eliminating an incentive to build affordable housing, potentially creating urban sprawl as residential projects leapfrog less-profitable parcels that no longer can be developed to currently allowed capacities, said land use lawyer Ron Weaver.

“If you interfere with reasonable continuous development, near amenities, near bus stops and transit stops in the future, you really are interfering with commendable growth patterns of the community,” said Weaver.

But eliminating the wetlands credit isn’t a new idea. The credit is prohibited under the community plans for both Keystone and Ruskin, and it “certainly hasn’t stopped development in Ruskin by any means, but our wetlands have been better protected,” said Smith.

The planning commission staff recommended eliminating the incentive for the south county area more than a decade ago, but the notion failed to gain traction then among elected commissioners.

Kemp broached the idea over the summer and again earlier this month, but this time, she had reinforcements. A recently released study from the Washington D.C.-based economic and real estate consulting firm, WTL+a, included a similar recommendation.

“The benefits of preserving wetlands and other environmentally-sensitive conditions should stand on their own; these unbuildable conditions should not be included in the calculation of allowed density combinations within single parcels,” the report said.

The study was commissioned by the planning commission as part of the ongoing rewrite of the community plans and moratorium on rezonings for Wimauma and Balm. The areas, the report said, already have housing entitlements greater than the market can absorb in the near term.

In the Wimauma village area, for instance, the 4,940 developable acres would allow more than 9,360 new dwelling units under current zoning. But even in the three-year pre-pandemic development rate of 275 annual housing starts, it would take 34 years to achieve buildout without adding any new development sites or entitlements, the report said. And, if housing starts matched the historic 20-year pace of 80 units per year, that buildout would be 117 years away.

Reducing the wetlands credit could be one step in what some commissioners hope is a substantial program of transferring development rights to guide growth away from rural enclaves toward the county’s urban service core, where infrastructure already is in place.

“We can’t even really have a transfer of development rights in Hillsborough County, because we give away the shop already,” said Kemp. “So there’s nothing that holds back or incentivizes anyone to transfer their development rights to better places to develop.”

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