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Familiar turf in nursery debate

Ronda Storms, who runs a family landscaping business, isn't distancing herself from proposed regulation of the industry.

By JOSH ZIMMER
Published June 3, 2004

TAMPA - The success and longevity of Ronda Storms' family landscaping business is a source of pride for the Hillsborough County commissioner.

Started by her father-in-law as Nat's Nursery in the mid 1950s, the Valrico operation later expanded into landscaping and irrigation. Dozens of similar businesses have co-existed for decades with their country neighbors, even though county regulations don't officially allow landscaping operations in agricultural areas.

But the world of landscape nurseries isn't so peaceful anymore.

As residents have poured into the county's expanding suburbs, a few of the businesses have come under fire from neighbors who don't like living next to the noise, traffic, heavy equipment and large buildings.

An intense debate is under way before the County Commission over how best to regulate a local industry that isn't legal in agricultural zones but now includes about 200 rural businesses.

Despite her close ties, Storms is not distancing herself.

During the first hearing on proposed regulations, held May 20, Storms voted twice and spoke often.

Some, including fellow commissioner Jan Platt, said Storms has a conflict of interest and should remove herself from discussions. In Platt's opinion, it doesn't matter that the county attorney's office looked at Florida law and cleared Storms to vote.

"It may be legal," Platt said. But, "for the credibility of the individual, as well as the county, every step ought to be taken to assure there's no appearance of a conflict of interest."

Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a Tallahassee-based group that advocates ethics in government, agreed. "If she wants to bend over backwards and recuse herself on a vote on that, I think that would be great," he said.

Storms, a second-term commissioner known for her strong opinions and fiery talking style, shrugs off the criticism. She said that no matter what the commission decides to do, her family's business will be grandfathered in and won't likely be subject to change. That's because it opened before commissioners implemented zoning in the 1970s.

"That's a general rule," county zoning administrator Paula Harvey said.

Others support Storms' advocacy role.

Salvatore Chillura, whose landscape business is under attack by neighbors in Thonotosassa, defended the commissioner.

"I don't find it odd that she's participating in the debate," said Chillura, who owns Lawn Pros. "I personally think it would be an asset . . . to have somebody like that reviewing the information."

Storms, who helps run her family's business, said her views on landscape nurseries show she isn't out for herself. At the hearing, she spoke against proposed rules she said could force some of the existing operations - her competitors - out of business.

Her knowledge of the business makes her ideally suited to vote on the issue, she said.

Landscape nurseries such as Storms Landscaping Services popped up largely unregulated back when tree farms started landscaping and landscapers started growing their own plants.

Current codes don't let nurseries do landscaping in agricultural zones, Harvey said. As for landscapers, the code officially restricts them to commercial areas, where their heavy equipment is farther away from quiet residential neighborhoods.

But Harvey acknowledges that hybrids slipped in under the county's radar screen, sharing space with more and more people. It didn't appear to be a problem until a few years ago, when Hughes Nursery opened a business off Tarpon Springs Road in Odessa.

Despite its name, Hughes primarily used its property to move and install plants it grows somewhere else. Neighbors complained. The case became a Pandora's box as the county became aware that other neighborhoods were upset about living so close to noisy, heavy equipment, Harvey said.

At the May 20 hearing, commissioners got a proposal from Harvey to create a new designation for landscape nurseries that would make them legal in agricultural zones. In exchange, the nurseries would be subject to set hours, setbacks, buffers and minimum areas for tree growing and landscaping supplies.

The commission told Harvey to go back to the industry and try to reach another compromise that could satisfy residents and indignant landscape nursery owners. The latest draft eases some of the proposed restrictions on hours of operation, vehicle access and areas set aside for equipment and mulch. But it would also require landscape nurseries established after July 26, 1989, to request a special permit from the county zoning office.

Storms' outspokenness has put her at odds with some of the very residents who consider her a passionate defender of their interests.

Karen Volpe of Thonotosassa said residents aren't against farms and migrant workers, as Storms implied at the hearing. She believes Storms should recuse herself.

"I happen to like her," Volpe said. However, "Just because she can, doesn't mean she should. I think she's wrapped up in this emotionally and I think she's making a mistake."

Platt also said she is bothered that Storms constantly referred to - and defended - her family business during the hearing. About 75 people, including dozens of landscape nursery workers, attended.

Storms said the controversy highlights "a cultural divide between non-ag people and residential people."

Storms also pointed out that if she steps away, the county might not get anything done. The two votes taken May 20 ended 4-3. A tie vote would leave the current regulations in place, she said.

That would mean an uncomfortable state of limbo. The next vote is scheduled for today. "I think I'm in the best position to understand the industry," she said.

- Josh Zimmer can be reached at 813 269-5314 or zimmer@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 01:00:36]


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