Editorial: Don't let developer overturn land-use plans

Published May 10, 2013

It is common in Florida for developers to push the limits of government regulation to turn a profit. But a recent claim against Hillsborough County's land-use rules is brazen even by the most generous definition of being business-friendly.

Developer Stephen J. Dibbs wants to overturn more than a dozen years of community planning that has allowed a slice of northwest Hillsborough County to retain its rural flavor amid suburban sprawl. Dibbs' federal lawsuit is a disingenuous attempt to maximize the profit potential of his real estate investments under the guise of, among other things, promoting public health and looking out for the interests of a low- and moderate-income population.

The suit, which also asks for remuneration for past land-use disputes between Dibbs and the county, seeks to invalidate the community plan for Keystone and Odessa. That plan limits residential density, targets commercial business location, sets architectural design standards and prohibits walled developments, among other things. The suit characterizes the rules as "a collection of arbitrary and discriminatory mandates created by a small group of activists.'' The contrary view is more common. When first begun in 1998, the rules were hailed widely as a model for community planning and inspired similar, though unsuccessful, efforts in neighboring Pasco County where a citizens group wanted to replicate the Cracker-style architectural standards for Land O'Lakes.

Arguments can be made about the effectiveness of individual components within the plan. Low-density housing on 5-acre lots, for instance, makes central water and sewer service cost-prohibitive and forces much of the area to rely on septic tanks and well water. But to suggest that such a provision threatens public health is a stretch considering there are more than 2.6 million septic sewage systems in Florida serving about a third of the state's population. Likewise, the contention that the land-use rules discourage the less affluent from living there would be more logical if someone was actually considering Odessa-Keystone as a site for affordable housing.

Most notably, the date of the real estate transactions undermines Dibbs' claims. He purchased his property after the plan earned county approval and there isn't a good explanation for what appears to be an absence of due diligence. Granting favored treatment after the fact would be a disservice to the rest of the Odessa-Keystone area, where residents expect the county to preserve the community's rural characteristics.