Hillsborough County is poised to take a step forward this week by taking a step back. County commissioners on Wednesday will consider a moratorium on some suburban development in the latest sign of mounting bipartisan frustration with runaway growth. The moratorium is a good idea; it could bring into sharper focus the public costs of sprawl and help build a broader consensus for more livable communities.
Commissioners will hold a public hearing on a proposed nine month moratorium that would freeze new rezoning applications under the so-called Residential Planned-2 land use category. As envisioned in the 1990s, that category was intended to promote self-sustaining developments—town center and village-style clusters in rural areas. But that hope never materialized; the category’s requirements lacked teeth and utility, frustrating residents, planners and developers. The commissioners’ recent approval of a 1,000-home development near Wimauma in rural south Hillsborough prompted them to vote unanimously to schedule Wednesday’s moratorium debate. While revisiting the land use category opens the door for both good changes and bad, it’s hard to imagine the existing framework could be worse. And it’s a welcome sign that both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats on the commission recognize the current rules only invite costly sprawl.
Who knows where this discussion leads. Commissioners could tinker around the edges, focusing on design standards, such as trails and sidewalks or architectural features, that might make new suburban developments more attractive. More likely, the debate will call attention to the lack of roads, mass transit, utilities, schools and other infrastructure in the rural areas, and the county’s need to manage growth more proactively. Stronger regulations could make for more efficient land use, improve connectivity throughout the area and help preserve natural habitat and resources.
The result could be a blueprint for more responsible development in rural south county. Hillsborough could better quantify the cost-shifting that new developments force onto local taxpayers and respond accordingly. The board could offer developers a clearer vision for growth and concrete expectations of the permitting process. And the public could engage in long-term planning of their communities instead of reacting to an isolated rezoning. As a side benefit, Democrats and Republicans on the board could foster a better working relationship. Already, both sides have expressed their desires to save rural lifestyles and avoid the cost to taxpayers of extending public services far from established neighborhoods. And they are showing the most interest in decades in making the planning process more relevant.
Ultimately, the county will need to be more vigilant about steering development toward the urban areas. The traffic congestion it created by green-lighting development in south county won’t disappear overnight. But the moratorium provides a brief opportunity to step back and keep the problem from getting worse. The commission should approve a temporary halt, which would begin after a final vote next month. Then it should work in good faith to build stronger communities that work better for those who live there.
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