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Fringe benefits

Homogeneous homes have erased some of the quirks of Gibsonton, where developers could hardly resist the bait.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published May 9, 2003

GIBSONTON - In a grassy field off Cedar Avenue just west of U.S. 41, the strawberry-shaped seats of a dormant carnival ride sit a few steps from a shuttered funnel cake stand.

Two streets over, sideshow operator Ward Hall puts finishing touches on his World of Wonders show front, a 25-foot-tall painted trailer that promises peeks at a "half-girl, half-snake" and a man with "three eyes, two noses."

In any other place, the sideshow staples might be eyesores.

Here in Gibsonton, winter home for carnies and circus performers, they're as common as mail boxes. The carnival paraphernalia, allowed because of a unique county zoning policy, suits the landscape like tropical fish farms and migrant camps.

But a few years ago, a government-encouraged housing boom began along the outskirts of Gibsonton. Gradually, it has crept inward, bringing cookie-cutter developments within a mile or two of colorful cotton candy booths and "steak-on-a-stick" stands.

Developers of the new communities are taking advantage of a hotly debated 3-year-old program that allows them to build hundreds of homes without paying transportation impact fees or hookup charges for county water and sewer lines.

The program, set to expire Sept. 30, has saved developers more than $7,500 per home. It has cost Hillsborough taxpayers more than $3.2-million so far, and ultimately could cost more than $7-million.

That irritates some elected leaders, who believe the policy benefits developers more than home buyers.

As commissioners debate the merits and future of the program, longtime residents fear the new communities - with row upon row of neutral-colored homes and spotless lawns, nearly 3,000 in all - will dramatically change this town, discovered in 1936 by a carnival performer who called herself "The World's Only Living Half Girl."

"Maybe they want this to all be green grass and look like every other development, but that's not what this place is about," said lifelong Gibsonton resident and former circus performer Athena Philips, 25. "We've been here for a long time, and I don't see why we should have to be pushed out or forced to change just because somebody with $50,000 more than us wants to be our neighbor."

The first developments to benefit from the county subsidies cropped up along U.S. 301 and west of U.S. 41 at Big Bend Road, on the edge between Gibsonton and Riverview.

But Symmes Grove, a community of 155 homes still under construction, emerged less than 2 miles from the Showtown Bar & Grill, where circus and carnival folks have shared burgers and beers for decades.

Some residents insist that Gibsonton's "show business" zoning will keep most developers from pursuing land in the heart of Gibsonton.

"As long as we have that zoning, our yards can be junkyards," said Hall, 72, who moved to Gibsonton in the late 1960s. "That will contain Gibsonton, I think. Because most people would see our yards and think this is not a pleasant place to live."

Real estate agents and developers, however, view Gibsonton differently.

In this community of 7,000 mostly low-income residents, developers see large tracts of affordable farm land.

In U.S. 41, they see a relatively easy commute to downtown Tampa.

In Gibsonton's "rundown" properties, they see potential for rebirth.

"It's kind of like this sleeping town," said land-use consultant Bonnie Rubishaw of Tampa.

"It's always been this carnie area, so there's not a lot of education there. But many of those people have left or died off, and it's becoming more urban," she said. "Little by little, people are going to buy the rundown stuff, renovating it, converting it."

EkkWill Waterlife Resources, the world's largest tropical fish producer, is selling 300 of its 350 acres to a developer that plans to build nearly 1,350 homes on Symmes Road.

The EkkWill land is less than a mile from Symmes Grove, where half the homes have been presold since January.

Doug Mastellis, a sales consultant for Symmes Grove, said the first family moved in last month. He expects a steady trickle of moving trucks to arrive each week.

At East Bay Lakes and Kings Lake, which combined will feature nearly 1,000 homes, sales are just as brisk.

The homes, with buyer-friendly price tags of $95,000 to $150,000, target first-time home buyers or families trading current homes for similar-sized ones that cost less.

"Do you remember what New Tampa was like five years ago?" Mastellis asked, referring to the explosion of new communities in northern Hillsborough, where vast tracts of land were ripe for development.

"This is like that. It's just less congested here, and people see a good deal."

Career illusionist Roy Huston, 62, can't understand why people would pay $100,000 or more for homes so close to old mobile home parks and carnival rides. Or why they would make neighbors of industrial giants such as the new desalination plant and the fertilizer plant operated by Cargill Crop Nutrition.

"This just isn't conducive to homes with young families," said Huston, who lives next door to Ward Hall and a fire-eating midget.

"But you know, some people will buy a home next to the airport and then complain about the noise."

For years, new home developers had no interest in Gibsonton, and it showed.

The vacant lots and older homes weren't worth much. They generated little property tax revenue for the county.

A task force of 13 - including two developers, a Realtor and three lawyers who regularly represent developers - persuaded four of the seven county commissioners to stop collecting transportation impact and water hookup fees in six impoverished areas, including Gibsonton.

Although they didn't know how much the effort would ultimately cost, a majority of the commission embraced the three-year pilot program.

Their theory: As the region bloomed, it would generate more in property taxes and eventually offset the cost of the program.

As the pilot program draws to a close, Gibsonton remains the only "no impact fee zone" to have developed significantly in the past three years.

It is the southern link in a chain of new communities sprouting along U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 in Riverview, Apollo Beach and Ruskin.

While a handful of lots have been developed in the other five zones, more than 600 Gibsonton lots have been developed - almost all of them single-family homes in new subdivisions such as Kings Lake, county records show.

The growth in the area has been so explosive, county staffers in April requested an additional $2.1-million to pay for water and sewer hookups through Sept. 30. Most of the hookups will be in Gibsonton, where the county already has paid $3.2-million in hookup fees.

Another $1.7-million likely will be needed for the 2004 budget year, when the county will pay for water and sewer hookup permits pulled in the final days before the Sept. 30 deadline.

Tax revenue generated within unincorporated Hillsborough covers the cost of the water hookups, said budget director Eric Johnson.

In the first 21/2 years of the program, the county also lost $1.3-million in waived transportation impact fees.

By comparison, transportation fees in the Wimauma zone were only $17,215 and water/sewer hookups were $39,212.

The price of Gibsonton development outrages some commissioners, who believe the impact fee exemption reeks of political favoritism.

"Not only will this change the face of Gibsonton forever," said Commissioner Jan Platt, "but a handful of developers are getting a windfall profit at the expense of the other development in the county."

Ralph Hughes, a member of the task force that recommended the impact fee exemption, supplies building materials to two of the subdivisions through the Cast-Crete division of his company, Florida Engineered Construction Products Corp.

Task force member Judy James is a lawyer who represents Beazer Homes, the builder of East Bay Lakes.

Platt, who opposed the impact fee waivers, questions whether the program was really necessary to spur development in the Gibsonton area, given all the new communities being developed in southern Hillsborough County.

Commissioner Ronda Storms, one of three current commissioners who accepted campaign contributions from Hughes, says the county's boost is not political. She sees it as a necessary investment to improve Gibsonton.

Already, developers have approval to build a hotel on 25 acres off Gibsonton Road near East Bay Lakes. Across the street, a sign boasts of 10 commercial acres for sale.

"Before, you couldn't make developers go that way," Storms said.

The new communities will undoubtedly change Gibsonton and the surrounding area, Commissioner Pat Frank said, and longtime residents might not like the changes.

She predicts Gibsonton's new residents could eventually lead a push to get rid of the show business zoning that allows people like Huston to keep carnival and circus equipment in their yards.

"You start a lot of development in that area, and the new neighbors will start to complain," Frank said.

Commissioner Storms said she won't propose an end to the show business zoning, but she concedes it could become a problem.

"There's a limited population that wants to have a neon-pink elephant next door."

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com [Last modified May 8, 2003, 11:32:47]

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