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Ordinance targets big-box plans

The county is considering a growth ordinance that would mean more scrutiny of proposals for massive buildings.

By WILL VAN SANT
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003


BROOKSVILLE -- Just about everyone in local government is resigned to the fact that growth and development will continue to alter Hernando County, and many welcome the changes as a way to boost economic health.

Still, even among the fiercest free-marketers are those who enjoy a gently rolling expanse of oaks, the beauty of the coast or just a glimpse of green along the county's thickening commercial strips.

How government will treat its obligation to balance the environmental, aesthetic and economic needs of Hernando County is on the minds of both the staunchly pro-growth and those who lose sleep over the fate of black bears. There is a growing consensus, officials say, that what has been tried in the past is not satisfactory and that new methods are needed.

One instrument being considered is an ordinance that would require buildings of more than 100,000 square feet, often called big-box stores, to be deemed "planned development projects," regardless of the zoning classification of the land on which they sit.

Currently, such Olympus-sized developments on land other than that specifically zoned for PDPs can move forward without public hearings or the blessing of the County Commission. All that is needed are staff approvals and for the Southwest Florida Water Management District to sign off.

The ordinance would change that, bringing such massive projects before commissioners and the public -- as required of PDP-designated developments -- regardless of whether they sit on PDP-zoned land.

"It's another tool to help make sure that we provide for orderly growth in the county," said Jerry Greif, Hernando's chief planner. "It can help to make sure that the development fits the parcel."

In addition to subjecting large developments to greater public scrutiny, the ordinance calls for increasing the specificity of PDP plans developers must submit to the county. It would require that setbacks and the density of the development be provided, as well as a conceptual plan.

While falling short of what some antisprawl advocates dream of -- a rule that would allow officials to know the actual name of the business coming in, whether it be a Target or Wal-Mart, for example -- backers say the ordinance demands that developers provide a fuller picture of just what is being proposed.

"It gives us the opportunity to have some input into what really that project is going to look like," said County Commission Chairwoman Betty Whitehouse.

With approved developments sometimes languishing for years without a spade going into the ground, commissioners have recently begun to require that work start within a year of a PDP zoning or face having the project plans declared null and void.

The ordinance incorporates that approach, but rather than a one-year limit, two years is being considered. Also, the ordinance includes language that requires project designers to minimize environmental impacts.

Though they say this proposal represents progress, some want to see an ordinance that provides even greater control over development.

"I just don't think that some parts of it are strong enough," said Commissioner Diane Rowden.

Rowden said she would like to see all development projects greater than 25,000 square feet, rather than 100,000, be subject to the PDP process.

An ordinance passed in 2001, hailed at the time as a major step toward shaping the look of the county, requires projects over 25,000 square feet to have facades with columns or canopies, prohibits flat roof lines of more than 100 feet and includes other measures meant to make developments less of an eyesore.

But using the 25,000 feet stipulated in the 2001 law, often referred to as the county's big-box ordinance, might not be necessary, said Planning Department director Larry Jennings.

"Obviously, it would make more projects go through this process," Jennings said, referring to the PDP requirements. "But we have not seen the kinds of problems with those size developments as with the larger developments."

At the first of two public hearing on the ordinance, Arline Erdrich of the Coalition for Anti-Urban Sprawl and the Environment summed up the views of many present when she said it was time to take a harder line with developers to ensure the county stays livable.

Residents, Erdrich said in a later interview, are tired of driving everywhere and want growth that recognizes the pleasure of foot traffic, shopping in small stores and a tree or two.

"People want to come to a community because there is something special about it," she said. "It's time to put the nature back in the Nature Coast."

One worry with any such ordinance is that it could hurt economic growth and deter businesses from coming to the county, but those interviewed said such concerns are inflated.

"I don't think it's going to have an adverse impact on economic growth," said planner Greif. "It may have the opposite effect if it makes the place look nice."

The final public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for 10:45 a.m. April 22 in the commission chambers at the county government center in Brooksville.

-- Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com .

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