Judgment day for huge project
Hickory Hill's ability to move forward hinges on whether comp plan changes are approved.
By DAN DEWITT
Published April 22, 2007
Editor's note: This is the last of three reports on the proposed Hickory Hill subdivision, which comes before the County Commission for a public hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday.
SPRING LAKE - The ranch where a Tampa developer plans to build the Hickory Hill development looks out over 4,800 acres that someday will be covered with shopping centers, factories and 11,000 houses.
That makes Hickory Hill the ideal bridge between the huge development district, which flanks Interstate 75, and the rural heart of Spring Lake to the west, according to Hickory Hill developer Sierra Properties.
"We've had many professional planners review it," said Sebring Sierra, the company's vice president of operations. "They agreed it makes sense to transition from high-density urban to low-density rural."
Sindra Ridge, one of several neighbors who oppose the project, doesn't see any "high-density urban" either on the ranch or in the nearby development district.
It is still mostly pasture and woodland. And with companies either scrapping or delaying plans for development in the area, it may stay that way for years, opponents of the project have said.
"It doesn't take rocket science to see that there is no adjacent development to Hickory Hill," she said. "You don't have to be a planner to see that."
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The views of Ridge and Sierra frame one of the most intense and long-running land-use debates in Hernando history: whether to grant a comprehensive plan change to allow Hickory Hill - with 1,750 houses and three golf courses - on a 2,800-acre ranch, the largest remaining agricultural parcel in the county.
The County Commission will vote on this question Thursday, three years after Sierra Properties first announced its plans for the project; the comp plan amendment must receive final approval from the state Department of Community Affairs.
The commission will consider whether the county needs to designate more land for housing - a key requirement for changing the comp plan - and whether allowing Hickory Hill will promote sprawl.
When the state Department of Community Affairs reviewed Sierra's request for a comp plan change in September, it found six indications of sprawl, according to its staff report.
It asked for more information from the developer. Sierra's answers included a study showing that the county's projected population growth justified setting aside more land for housing, though the developer's methods conflict with ones used by the DCA see accompanying story.
Other issues, such as whether the project can be efficiently served by water lines and roads, are part of a development order required of Hickory Hill as a development of regional impact; the County Commission will also vote Thursday whether to approve that agreement.
But Sebring Sierra said the best way to explain why Hickory Hill does not promote sprawl is to look into the future. As the county grows, he said, the project will mesh with other development.
No other planned development, he said, will be able to handle demand for the high-end market expected for Hickory Hill, where the cheapest house will cost $375,000 and many will sell for more than $1-million.
"You need to have a supply (of housing) for market shifts and demographic changes," he said.
Also, he said, by creating Hickory Hill as a transition zone, it will protect the remaining rural areas of Spring Lake.
The smallest residential lots and a shopping center with 50,000 square feet of retail space is planned for the eastern portion of the project, along Lockhart Road and near the planned development district.
The plan calls for less intense land uses closer to the farms and large residential lots on the west side of the property - two golf courses, houses on 2-acre lots and a 200-foot-wide buffer.
"Hickory Hill will serve as a capstone" on the urban development to the east, said Sierra Properties' response to the state's objections, and "provides a clear separation" between the rural and urban areas.
The separation between rural and residential areas is already clear in the county's comprehensive plan, Hickory Hill opponents say, and so is the standard for changing the plan.
It states that the commission should not approve new land for housing "unless (existing residential) areas are predominantly developed and occupied (and) population projections indicated a need for additional urban development areas."
Of the seven subdivisions approved across the county since 2000, all are struggling to sell either houses or lots. Developers have backed out of agreements to build three large projects, called developments of regional impact in the county. One of those, the 4,800-unit Sunrise project, is in the planned development district, though the landowners are continuing to seek development approval.
Another company, Metro Development Group of Tampa, has renegotiated deals to buy two properties in the development district, meaning that it will not begin building on one site for two years and another for five.
"So what is the compelling reason that we need 1,700 or so more lots in that quadrant, where nothing has been built now?" asked Tom Grimms, an Orlando-area planner hired by a group that opposes the project, Hernando Alliance for Open Land Conservation.
There is also no guarantee that growth will come to Florida in the future unless the county promotes it with comprehensive plan changes such as the one requested by Hickory Hill, said Joe Murphy, conservation chairman of the Hernando Audubon Society.
Amending the comp plan for Hickory Hill could set the stage for the approval of other large parcels due to come before the County Commission, Murphy said. That includes the 4,282 acres owned by Florida Rock Industries north of Brooksville.
"We don't think the county should be figuring out how we can tweak the comp plan to allow as much growth as possible," he said.
Prepared to adjust
If the county turns down the comp plan amendment, Sebring Sierra said, his company has other options. It currently has the right to build about 300 homes on the property as well as the same number of golf courses it currently plans. It might also pursue its claim, disputed by the county, that it has a historic right to build residential lots approved as part of a 1925 golf course community.
Or the company might return with a new plan.
"We'll lick our wounds and think about what to do next," Sierra said. "We're not going to pack our bags and leave Hernando County."
If the company's next plan doesn't fit the comprehensive plan, Murphy said, he will probably fight it again.
"Hickory Hill might be a fine project somewhere in the county where that level of density is appropriate," he said. "But it's hard to imagine it would ever be a good fit for Spring Lake."
Dan DeWitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352)754-6116.
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