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By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published July 8, 2007
The latest trend in urban development looks like an old-fashioned shakedown. Tampa police are investigating whether neighborhood groups have sought money from developers in exchange for supporting their projects. City Council member Charlie Miranda did the right thing in bringing the matter to public attention. Beyond corrupting the development process and putting the integrity of entire neighborhoods up for sale, a quid pro quo could backfire and keep investment from where it's most needed.
City officials postponed a rezoning request last month from Metropolitan Life Insurance for a project it plans near Tampa International Airport. Council member Tom Scott said city staff members told him the delay involved a side deal between the developer and a neighborhood association. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said concerns over such deals prompted her to contact the Police Department; the department confirmed recently there was an "ongoing investigation that involves land development in Tampa."
While officials would not disclose many details, Miranda revealed several side deals for a West Tampa project that called on the developer to contribute $700, 000 to a neighborhood association. The council, at Miranda's urging, moved to bar payoffs for neighborhood support and require greater disclosure of side deals in development agreements.
These steps are helpful, but they nibble around the edge of the problem. Requiring hired guns to disclose their interests during rezonings would give the council an idea about who has financial incentives to lobby. But the nature of these side deals makes it difficult to tie contributions to a group's political support. Improvements such as street lights or sidewalks may legitimately offset a development's impact on its neighbors. The council might find itself in the business of defining what's legitimate by putting a price on the scale of a development. And groups can deny strings are attached. The authority, after all, for approving these projects rests with council, not the associations.
But that is naive. Neighborhood groups hold huge sway with elected council members. Being sensitive to residents' concerns is appropriate, but there is a difference between having developers reach out and greasing the public rezoning process.
The mayor and council need an overarching policy for handling these neighborhood impacts. Developers would know up front what is expected of them and civic leaders, unaccountable to the public, would not have the same discretion to ask for the world. The city needs to play a larger role, because what happens in one neighborhood affects taxpayers citywide. The city police should also hand off the investigation. The department and the police union are political players, too; some other jurisdiction would better clear the air.