Democrat-controlled Hillsborough commission sets sights on transportation and stopping sprawl

District 5 County Commissioner Mariella Smith, left, takes the oath of office administered by her husband Tres Smith during the Board of County Commissioners Investiture Ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 in downtown Tampa.  JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times
District 5 County Commissioner Mariella Smith, left, takes the oath of office administered by her husband Tres Smith during the Board of County Commissioners Investiture Ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 in downtown Tampa. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published Nov. 20, 2018

TAMPA — It didn't take long for the Hillsborough County Commission's new Democratic majority to flex its muscles.

Two new Democratic commissioners, Mariella Smith and Kim Overman, were sworn into office Tuesday, giving the party its first majority on the county's most powerful political body — four members to three — since 2004.

Their first act of business was nominating Democrats Les Miller as chairman and Pat Kemp as vice chairwoman.

And in the commission's first meeting since the Nov. 6 midterm election, the Democrats signaled it will no longer be business as usual.

The new commission is expected to champion transportation and mass transit as the county takes possession of its share of a new 30-year sales tax expected to bring in $280 million per year.

What's more, Democrats on the commission will have a big say in how the rest of the money will be spent. Four Democratic commissioners will serve on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority's governing board and they will also make up four out of the county's five picks for the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, which helps prioritize transportation projects.

Affordable housing and protection of environmentally sensitive land is also likely to be a higher priority for a commission that is widely expected to more carefully scrutinize proposals from developers.

Both Smith and Overman made transportation and smarter growth a central peg of their successful campaigns. Smith, who beat sitting Commissioner Victor Crist by more than 7 percentage points, said her clear victory in a high-turnout countywide election shows she has a mandate to follow through on those promises.

Her campaign pledges included mass transit; safer streets for cars, bicycles and pedestrians; smarter growth management; and making sure developers pay their share of infrastructure costs, she said, the last to a big cheer from a packed commission chamber.

"Of course, I'll work for environmental protection and transparent government that puts the public interest before special interests," Smith said.

The previous Republican-dominated commission often was blamed by residents for allowing development to mushroom in areas like Brandon and Riverview without accompanying transportation improvements. The result has been congestion on major thoroughfares such as Interstate 75, U.S. 301. Bloomingdale Avenue and Lithia Pinecrest Road.

The previous commission also went against the recommendation of the Urban Land Institute and approved subdivisions outside Hillsborough's urban services area, where public services such as roads, police and fire protection are most efficiently provided.

But whether there is a simple fix remains to be seen.

Commissioners in 2016 approved new mobility fees requiring developers pay more to cover the cost of the transportation improvements needed to support the growth they foster. But the fee schedule may have to be revised to account for the new sales tax.

The reason: These fees are often passed on to property owners and it may be illegal to levy, in effect, a double tax to pay for road improvements like a new turn lane.

Another concern: As of 2016, developers held more than $90 million in credits they can use to offset future fees.

Jennifer Motsinger, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builder's Association, said she doesn't expect developers seeking to rezone land will have a harder time before the new commission.

"Those are platitudes," Motsinger said. "There's a big difference between what is said on the campaign trail and being elected. It's not the first time I've heard that."

Ron Weaver, an attorney with Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, said he expects new growth in the county will go hand in hand with the development of mass transit.

Projects like a proposed high-speed rail link to Orlando or a Bus Rapid Transit link from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg through Tampa would make adjacent land more valuable and spur development.

Still, Weaver expects developers may have to show more inclination in their plans to address concerns of the Democratic commissioners, such as affordable housing and preservation of environmentally sensitive land.

"They will be watchful parents for responsible growth," he said. "The taxpayers have elected them to ask a lot of hard questions."

Republican commissioners Ken Hagan and Stacy White were also sworn in for new four year terms Tuesday. White is serving his second term as the District 4 commissioner. Hagan, who switched from a countywide seat to District 2 because of term limits, is starting his fifth full term.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.