Hillsborough’s move against ugly buildings | Editorial
A plan to preserve rural characteristics is a preemptive check against cookie-cutter development
A shopping cart is abandoned at a former grocery store in Brandon.
A shopping cart is abandoned at a former grocery store in Brandon.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Apr. 14, 2022

Why are ugly strip malls allowed to litter the American landscape? Communities are rightly pushing back, and a new idea in Hillsborough County could shape the region’s look for the better.

Hillsborough County commissioners agreed this week to a suggestion by Commissioner Stacy White to create an overlay district for the Lithia area. White, who represents south and east county, wants to preserve the area’s rural characteristics by guiding the aesthetics of future commercial development. As the Tampa Bay TimesC.T. Bowen reported, the move could include new design elements and requirements for landscaping with Florida native plants. While the proposal does not apply to residential construction, the guidelines for commercial could be a starting point for higher-quality development more generally.

The district would extend from the southeastern boundary of the FishHawk community east to the Polk County line and south to the Manatee County border. It would include Lithia, Fort Lonesome and the Alafia River State Recreation Area. An overlay district imposes additional regulations in the target area, addressing fencing, buffering and architectural elements that are in keeping with a locale’s character or history. Hillsborough has more than a dozen other overlay districts. And local governments across the state have used the same approach to protect the look and feel of unique communities from being blanched by cookie-cutter development.

The Lithia proposal contains a half-dozen architectural concepts, including Florida Cracker style, which can include metal roofs atop wood-frame structures; a General Store-style building featuring a long front porch; and country farmhouse and neoclassical styles. Bare metal and chain link fencing would be prohibited. Buffers would be required around critical water bodies and habitat. And the county’s extension office would be available to consult on Florida-friendly landscaping.

White conceded that the area is sparsely populated and that the only commercial development in the short-term could be fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. But that doesn’t diminish the value of design standards and, if anything, it demonstrates the importance of getting the overlay established before colorless development pockmarks the district.

As White correctly notes, unbridled development can quickly overwhelm an area’s character. “You can really lose your sense of place pretty quickly,” he said. Being proactive protects the community and developers alike. It helps preserve a way of life that residents choose while giving contractors guidance on the front end about what the county expects of their developments. Commissioners voted unanimously to schedule public hearings May 19 and June 9 to formalize the rule. White deserves credit for a good, timely move that should help preserve east county’s rural flavor and natural resources.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.