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Drought won't hinder rezoning in Hillsborough

Officials pass conservation measures but balk at denying rezoning on the basis of water woes.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


TAMPA -- After more than two years of drought, Hillsborough commissioners have fielded one question as often as any: How can you keep approving new development when my lawn is turning brown?

They tried to answer that question Wednesday by passing a series of initiatives aimed at tying land-use decisions more closely to water availability.

The measures range from a ban on deed restrictions that require thick, green yards to a requirement that sprinklers soak plants, not pavement.

But commissioners stopped short of endorsing the proposal that would have enabled them to turn down the zoning requests that can lead to new construction based on water shortages. Instead, they decided to more closely track new demands for drinking water from pending construction to aid in planning.

Their votes came as more than a dozen representatives of building and real estate groups pleaded with them not to make policy decisions based on a temporary, if prolonged, drought.

"The drought that we have is a significant event, and it will pass," said Ellen Winter, a Tampa real estate agent.

"We already have a water crisis in this community," said Julia Rettig, president of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties. "We don't need to add an economic development crisis on top of it."

Taking that cue, Commissioner Chris Hart asked commissioners not to make a decision limiting rezonings based on a rare occurrence.

"This is a 100-year drought," he said.

Assistant County Attorney Jim Porter said restricting rezonings based solely on dry surroundings could have been hard to defend legally. That's because Tampa Bay Water, which supplies water for much of Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, guarantees it will provide water from somewhere.

By better tracking water demands, he said, commissioners may be able to press for modifications to development plans in areas severely affected by drought.

"I believe this falls into the knowledge is power category," Porter said.

Among other items, commissioners also gave at least conceptual approval to requiring that new development use less thirsty varieties of native plants. They also agreed to establish a more speedy hearing system for accused lawn-watering violators akin to the city of Tampa's "rocket docket," and to do more to publicize drought concerns.

They passed on a suggested ban on car washes out of fear it would hurt charity events.

Several of the measures will have to return for commission votes and possibly public hearings.

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