Borrow pit foes will get 2nd try

A Nov. 16 session was procedurally flawed, a hearing officer rules.

By RODNEY THRASH, Times Staff Writer
Published December 12, 2007

TAMPA - At a Nov. 16 land use hearing, opponents of a proposed borrow pit in northwest Hillsborough County didn't have enough time to finish the arguments they'd spent more than a year crafting.

On Tuesday, the hearing officer in that case gave them a second chance to have their say.

Harold Youmans ruled that last month's hearing on the issue was "procedurally flawed" and requested that the county "coordinate another hearing ... to afford the participants adequate time to make their respective presentations."

The Nov. 16 hearing lasted from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., mainly because the county staff waited until the hearing to submit revisions to the application.

Those changes were so significant that much of the time was devoted to addressing them, not the merits or disadvantages of land excavation.

Three people who attended the meeting fired off e-mails to top county officials saying their due process rights were violated.

"This recounting of events ... gives rise to the question of whether adequate procedural due process has been afforded the opposition," Youmans wrote in his seven-page ruling.

In addition to the last-minute amendments, the complainants said representatives for applicant Stephen Dibbs received more time to present his side and rebut their case than they did. Dibbs is the Northdale developer who pushed for the elimination of the county's wetlands division. He also contributed to the re-election bids of two county commissioners.

One of the critics, Denise Layne, land use liaison for the Lutz Civic Association, went a step further. In her e-mail, she demanded an investigation of Youmans and assistant county attorney Louis Whitehead, who was at last month's hearing.

Layne's e-mail and two others prompted County Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Mark Sharpe to ask for a review of the hearing. County Attorney Adam Gormly was still reviewing the case a week ago. He couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

County code allows 15 minutes of testimony from the applicant and their witnesses; five minutes from the county staff; 15 minutes from proponents; 15 minutes from opponents; five additional minutes from the staff for any amended recommendations; and five minutes of rebuttal from the applicant.

It's still not clear how long each side took, but in Youman's own ruling, he said, "much of the time was confined to issues related to the recommended conditions. Little time was spent at the hearing on the issue of whether by substantial competent evidence the applicant met the requirements."

"This just proves that our complaints are valid," Layne said.

Not everyone was satisfied with Youman's ruling.

"To remand the case back on the basis of that the opposition didn't have adequate time to review the conditions I don't believe is correct," said Vin Marchetti, Dibbs' lawyer. "I had the same amount of time."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at 813 269-5303 or rthrash@sptimes.com.