Discontent grows as growth shatters records

Residents plan to voice their discontent at a planning and zoning meeting Monday.

Published January 22, 2006

TAMPA - Paula Harvey says she's overwhelmed at times by all the homes popping up across Hillsborough County.

"I have to drive in traffic just like anyone else," Harvey said. "Like a lot of residents, I wonder why different jurisdictions sometimes allow development to take place."

But Harvey has a job that distinguishes her from other residents. As the county's zoning administrator, Harvey manages the process by which commissioners approve or reject subdivisions. The job puts her on the receiving end of complaints that government is doing little to contain sprawl.

"We're easy targets," Harvey said. "In some respects, I can understand the frustration."

More than 14,000 housing permits were issued countywide from January through September, putting 2005 on pace to shatter county building records. But residents are hardly celebrating.

"People are frustrated with traffic, schools, services, and more of them are speaking out," said Bob Hunter, executive director of the county's planning commission. "They feel disenfranchised, and they want to do something about it."

On Monday night, a group of homeowners plans to don red T-shirts and speak against a 3,460-home project near Lithia during a zoning hearing.

"That many homes will cripple our roads. We just can't take anymore," said Dawn Chavez, a FishHawk Ranch homeowner. "It's almost as if the county isn't doing any long-range planning."

A group in Ruskin, a southeast waterfront community of about 10,000, is pushing to incorporate as a way to shield it from what some call rampant growth.

"There's a lot of unrest down here," said Ron Wolfe, who is helping organize the effort.

Last week, a group of parents with children attending crowded schools visited school district and County Commission meetings to find out why there's a space crunch.

"I don't know who's to blame," said Dallas Wood, whose 8-year-old son attends Bryant Elementary School in northwest Hillsborough. "I just want to know what we can do to get the situation resolved."

It can be a full-time job finding out just what the situation is. Florida law and the county's land use code can make even the simplest zoning change a difficult process for residents to fathom.

"The casual resident is worse off than a deer in headlights," said attorney Chris Rodems, who has been hired by residents to oppose projects. "DRI, ZHM, LUHO, LDC. You can be stumped by the most basic terms and acronyms. Developers have experts and attorneys. Who do residents have?"

The frequent answer is themselves. Mastering the finer points of growth issues can require hours of research in zoning files and discussions with the county staff. Many residents take time away from jobs and families to fight well-financed development projects.

Since October, Chavez, who has two children in public schools, has studied the plans by Pulte Homes to build a project called Lake Hutto on 1,127 acres of an old ranch. She owns two Dollar Stores with her husband, and estimates she works about 12 hours a week researching the project. She doesn't like what she has found.

Even though the developer is contributing more than $57-million to widen FishHawk Boulevard and Bell Shoals Road to accommodate the new homes, Lithia-Pinecrest Road won't be touched until the county completes a study in two years. The two-lane road is a local joke, carrying an average of 26,800 cars every day. It is supposed to carry a maximum of 21,000.

Chavez knows that when commissioners consider the project on Feb. 21, it will take more than facts and figures to convince them. It'll take a throng of angry homeowners.

So on Tuesday night, Chavez anxiously waited inside FishHawk Fellowship Church, glancing at her watch before a strategy meeting that she helped organize. It was nearly 7 p.m., and only 14 people showed up. Earlier meetings had drawn more than 50. Chavez wasn't pleased with the falloff.

"A friend warned me about this," Chavez said. "It's the season premiere of American Idol."

By the end of the meeting, Chavez said she felt better. Those who showed agreed to stick to well-argued presentations and refrain from name-calling and emotional outbursts. A zoning hearing master will consider the project Monday.

"I can understand why people don't get involved," she said. "There are so many obstacles to understanding what's going on. But there's too much at stake not to get involved."

Homeowners like Wolfe in Ruskin say they learned the hard way that spending all that time learning the process didn't help. He and others spent months working with developers and county staff members crafting a community plan that was supposed to provide a blueprint for development. It was adopted in 2004, but he said the projects that were approved afterward by commissioners haven't followed its rules.

"We took that plan seriously," Wolfe said. "It elevated the expectations down here. Now we question the sincerity and intent of that whole process."

The push to incorporate is a call for local control, Wolfe said.

"There's a disconnect that's felt between our residents and county government," he said. "We love our community. We're not going to give up."

Bruce McClendon, who is the county's planning and growth management director, said Ruskin's move to incorporate wouldn't solve its problems with these projects, many of which have every legal right to build because of zoning and state statutes.

"Property rights are property rights. That's not going to change if Ruskin becomes its own municipality," he said.

Still, he said he understands why they feel as though their government has failed.

"This feeling is growing, and it's felt all throughout the state," McClendon said. "We have to take this discontent and make a commitment to reconnect with our citizens. We can do better."

McClendon said one reason residents are objecting more to growth is that they perceive that living conditions are getting worse. Unlike roads, sewers, parks and stormwater systems, schools have never been required by state lawmakers to be in place before housing gets approved. The result: Commissioners say they can't refuse a project if there aren't available schools. That could change over the next few years with new restrictions, and McClendon said he expects those conditions will improve.

While roads have been required before projects get approved, McClendon said that rule wasn't enforced for some of the county's most congested roads because of an agreement struck between commissioners and state officials in the 1990s. Roads like Fletcher Avenue, Dale Mabry Highway, U.S. 301 and Gunn Highway got more congested, and developers were still allowed to build along them.

But that agreement expired in 2003, and now the county won't allow development on any roads until there is money to widen or extend them. In 2005, developers agreed to spend $250-million on roads. Still, McClendon stopped short of promising improved conditions.

"It just won't get worse," he said.

Harvey said she understands why residents are irritated with the development boom. She just wishes they would stop blaming her.

"We don't make final decisions," she said. "We make recommendations. The decisions are always made by the zoning hearing master or commissioners."

Commissioner Tom Scott said he's hardly to blame for the projects he has approved over his career. Projects are approved based on what the comprehensive plan allows, he said, and commissioners can't deny a project if it meets those guidelines.

"But I see this unrest," Scott said. "I've been on the board for 10 years, and I've never seen it like this."