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Hillsborough recruits new planner, expediter
The director plans to streamline procedures to get the development wheels turning faster.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published May 8, 2007
TAMPA - Hillsborough County approved a near-record number of homes in the past five years, but that pace might not be enough for Peter Aluotto.
The county's new director of planning and growth management says Hillsborough can do better by doing things faster.
"That's why I was brought in, " Aluotto said. "I was told it takes too long to get approval to build. You have to do something to make the wheels turn faster."
Aluotto started work in his $106, 000 job in February. The department Aluotto promises to whip into shape has 338 employees, a $37-million budget and duties that include building inspections, zoning approvals, and community planning.
His responsibilities could grow if - as some have suggested might happen - commissioners slash the county's other planning agency, the Planning Commission, and its $6.6-million budget.
The scale of his job already dwarfs what the 55-year-old New Jersey native has supervised before: 35 employees and a $3-million budget. But Aluotto said he's up for the challenge.
"You do the job the same if it's a $2-million department or a $20-million department, " Aluotto said. "I certainly think I'm qualified."
Aluotto comes to Hillsborough - population 1.1-million - from his director of planning and zoning job in Escambia County - population 274, 000. It takes Hillsborough two months to issue the number of housing permits Escambia issues in an entire year.
Aluotto beat out 30 others for the job by convincing a panel of interviewers he could handle the added responsibility, said Wally Hill, the county's deputy administrator. Hill, 10 other county officials, and a representative from the Tampa Bay Builders Association chose Aluotto.
Hill said he didn't see a conflict in letting a development representative help choose an official who will regulate the industry.
"They're our customers, " Hill said.
One advantage Aluotto had over other candidates was a planning background, Hill said.
"Having someone with a broader view is helpful in providing a second opinion on the work done by the Planning Commission, " Hill said. "It prepares us for a future where there would be no Planning Commission."
Employees at the Planning Commission review projects to see if they comply with the county's long-range plans. Hill said Aluotto's department, which considers zoning, could perform that future land-use role using fewer than the 60 employees who work at the Planning Commission.
"I don't think better growth management means more employees, " said Hill. "You can improve the process - get rid of duplication of effort, eliminate the physical process of moving plans around - without compromising the review."
Aluotto says speeding up of reviews, which he calls "streamlining, " will be his top priority.
Streamlining doesn't sacrifice the quality or accuracy of the review, he said, though it will reduce the number of people who inspect the plans.
"We're not cutting corners, " Aluotto said.
He won high marks among developers in Escambia for streamlining, said his former boss, Bob McLaughlin, an assistant county administrator in the Panhandle county.
"He's a great guy. We're sorry we lost him, " McLaughlin said. "He took a department that was disorganized with low morale and rebuilt it."
Early into his new job, Aluotto said he's spending much of his time scrambling to meetings. In his office during a rare lull last week, he flipped through a calendar marked with meetings .
"I don't see a lot of white space, " he said. "The challenge in this job will be time management."
His championing of a faster approval process reinforces a perception among some residents that the county will continue to let regulation of growth slide, appeasing commissioners who get the vast majority of their campaign money from developers.
"This is exactly what's wrong with the county, " said Mariella Smith of Hillsborough's Sierra Club. "Streamlining is out of touch with the vast majority of taxpayers who are fed up. What about improving traffic and schools? Protecting natural resources? If we need extra permitting to accomplish those goals, that would be fine."
Aluotto shrugs when told of the concerns some residents have about development. He said he doesn't always agree with developers. For instance, he doesn't think the county needs to expand the urban service area where development is subsidized with utilities and roads.
He said he wants to find common ground between residents and developers.
"Right now, you hear from residents that homebuilders are 'villains, ' " Aluotto said. "You hear from developers that residents are 'obstructionists.' They've simplified this into labels. I want them both to trust the county. Let's compromise."