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Hillsborough committee suggests economic development areas, simplicity

TAMPA − Hillsborough commissioners borrowed a page from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn nine months ago when they ordered up a comprehensive review of the county's building and development rules.

They formed a committee of "stakeholders." The group's task was to identify duplications in development rules, procedures that create bottlenecks to growth and other potential impediments to kickstarting the economy.

After some fits and starts, the Economic Prosperity Stakeholders Committee is finalizing a set of recommendations for commissioners' consideration next month. It may come as no surprise that the group, stacked with development and building industry interests, is recommending a series of steps to streamline regulation, create greater flexibility in waiving development rules and foster a more customer-friendly attitude.

"I think we ended up at a good place," said Rick Harcrow, senior vice president for developer Newland Communities. "I'm optimistic at the end of the day that there's going to be a handful of things to come out of this."

The recommendations fall far short of more sweeping changes sought by building industry advocates at the outset, from eliminating local wetlands protections to denuding specific community development plans. The recommendations — in their final drafting stage — largely direct county employees to come up with changes on a smaller scale, an effort that already was under way.

Advocates for environmental protection and growth management call the final report a mixed bag. The results are not as bad as they feared, given the makeup of the committee.

At the same time, there is not much detail to the final report. What might have been a meaningful exercise simply feels like deja vu, the activists say, a reprise of prior exercises in the community that always seem to center on deregulation rather than enhancing the community to make it a better place to live, play and work.

"In the end, it turned out to be about the same thing we do every 10 years or so in this county," said long-time activist Jan Smith. "Even when we have rampant growth, there is always an effort to make things easier."

The most concrete recommendation in the plan centers on creating a series of economic development areas, places where new construction would be encouraged by certain types of sought-after companies. Those include businesses that specialize in biotechnology and medical services, defense and security, and financial services.

County government would be charged with making those sites development-ready, or in the parlance of the federal stimulus effort, shovel-ready. While there are details to be hashed out, the committee says county government should take steps to ensure things like water, sewer, storm water drainage and roadways are in place so that new business can simply seek construction permits and start building.

The committee also recommends waiving transportation impact fees, which other builders must pay to cover the costs of roads, sidewalks and other items made necessary by new construction, in those areas.

So far, the county has identified a handful of large swaths of land that could serve as economic development areas, concentrated along the Interstate 75 corridor, particularly near its intersection with Interstate 4. Areas are also identified in the West Short business district, surrounding the University of South Florida and in East Tampa.

Other recommendations are more general in nature, having to do with the development review process:

• Reviewing rules that apply to distinct parts of the community — so called community plans — to see if changes are needed.

• Promoting a more customer-friendly approach at the county's development review headquarters.

• Allowing the staff to make judgment calls to waive rules on more procedural matters, rather than forcing developers into a costly and sometimes lengthy variance review process.

• Creating a preapplication procedure where developers can submit rough plans before a formal application, so the county staff can alert them to potential pitfalls before the full bureaucratic process kicks in.

• Eliminating areas of duplication in land development regulations and streamlining the number of review procedures that must take place before builders can break ground.

Because much of this is not spelled out, community activists are anxious about how those changes will take place. And they say the basic premise of the committee had a biased tone.

"We're operating in this committee under the presumption that if we streamline land-use development regulation then that translates into economic prosperity," said Pamela Jo Hatley, a land-use lawyer who often represents neighborhood groups. "That is a flawed assumption. And it is a fallacy."