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Hillsborough to extend south county growth moratorium

Property owners challenge recent land plan changes for rural areas
Businesses and homes are pictured on State Road 674 in Wimauma. Hillsborough County commissioners are poised to extend a growth moratorium around Wimauma and Balm until legal challenges to the updated land plans for those areas are resolved.
Businesses and homes are pictured on State Road 674 in Wimauma. Hillsborough County commissioners are poised to extend a growth moratorium around Wimauma and Balm until legal challenges to the updated land plans for those areas are resolved. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 14, 2021
Updated Dec. 14, 2021

A two-year growth moratorium in southern Hillsborough County, scheduled to end Dec. 31, is poised for an extension.

Hillsborough County commissioners on Tuesday voted to schedule public hearings for early next year to continue the moratorium on rezoning applications in the largely rural areas of Wimauma and Balm until legal challenges to the county’s land plans are resolved.

“It’s a crying shame we can’t move forward,” Commissioner Mariella Smith said of the legal proceedings.

In October, commissioners adopted changes to those plans, crafted over the prior 20 months, to address concerns about fast-paced residential development exceeding the government’s ability to provide sufficient transportation, schools, public safety and other necessary services. The moratorium, adopted in December 2019 and later extended, allowed time for the land plans to be updated during the pandemic.

Related: Hillsborough blesses new development rules for rural parts of county

But the approved changes drew two legal challenges filed Nov. 15.

In one suit, property owners Chris “Bear” McCullough, Joseph Sumner III and Reed Fischback asked an administrative judge to toss the land plan covering Balm and the surrounding area — designated by the county as residential planned development, or RP2.

They contended the rules, which stated that developers could provide community benefits like additional land for a park, trail connections or a neighborhood center in exchange for increased housing densities, were illegal.

“As adopted, the plan amendment harms petitioners’ ability to develop their properties by significantly limiting achievable residential densities and imposing unlawful exactions disguised as community benefits,” the suit stated.

In a separate action, Eisenhower Property Group, challenged the plan covering Wimauma. But last week, the company dropped the suit “without prejudice,” which means it can be refiled at a later date.

In response, the county attorney’s office advised the commission to continue the rezoning moratorium until the legal challenges are concluded. An administrative hearing on the Balm land plan is scheduled Feb. 15-18. The public hearings on the moratorium extension are scheduled for Jan. 12 and Feb. 2.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to to hold the hearings prior to extending the moratorium into 2022. Commissioner Ken Hagan, who attended the meeting virtually, didn’t vote. Commissioner Stacy White was absent.

Related: Wimauma at epicenter of Hillsborough land disputes

Attorney Jacob T. Cremer of the Stearns Weaver Miller law firm said McCullough, Sumner and Fischback did not intend to withdraw their case.

“My clients all have deep roots in Hillsborough County agriculture. They are not developers. They are just hardworking farmers who are trying to protect their land values so that they can continue what they love,” Cremer said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

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He said they were surprised about last-minute changes to the plan during the October adoption hearing.

The commission approved the updated land plans followed nearly two years of community meetings, work by consultants, and input from property owners and local residents about how they wanted the Balm and Wimauma areas to grow.

Both areas are outside the county’s urban service boundary and new home construction is limited to one home per five acres. Under the previous rules, developers could circumvent the cap, increasing density ten-fold, if they provided necessary infrastructure and designed their projects as self-contained villages with clustered housing and commercial businesses. In Wimauma, the plan sought adequate availability of jobs to curb the live-here, work-there commuter sprawl.

Under the updated plans, developers instead could choose from a pre-approved list of community benefits to gain the ability to build up to two homes per acre.

Related: Hillsborough nixes job rule from Wimauma land plan

The challenges, particularly from Eisenhower, which has separate litigation over disputed rezoning requests pending in Hillsborough Circuit Court, drew the ire of Smith.

“If they’re willing to pull this trick it shows they never negotiated in good faith,” Smith said before the meeting.