Rezonings put council in bind
By MICHAEL SANDLER and SUSAN THURSTON
© St. Petersburg Times,
NEW TAMPA -- Developers working in the city of Tampa spend months negotiating with staff and regional planning officials to meet guidelines for traffic, schools and the environment.
Technically, the City Council must approve each rezoning, too. But a recent public hearing concerning the Scala housing development at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and County Line Road suggests those deals are sealed long before the council comes to order.
Council member Bob Buckhorn argued that voting against staff recommendations would open the city to a lawsuit, and should therefore be avoided.
But if that is the case, who has the power at City Hall? The planners or the politicians? The question is not insignificant as New Tampa evolves from a remote collection of suburbs to an edge city beset with traffic problems.
"Ultimately, we are in charge," said Buckhorn, who was questioned along with other council members days after the June 14 vote. "But if you are going to vote in opposition to a zoning that has all the approvals of staff, you need to have some pretty good reasons."
Not enough road for current residents
Buckhorn could not find reason to deny the rezoning for the Scala 683 Group, even though he voiced serious concerns that it would add to traffic woes on Bruce B. Downs. Instead, he led a 5-2 vote in favor of two commercial centers and up to 561 homes, which will likely include 300 apartments.
Not everyone on the council agreed with staff. Linda Saul-Sena and Shawn Harrison both opposed the project on grounds that the current infrastructure is not sufficient for the people who already live there.
"I feel like it's okay to say no," Saul-Sena said. "What is the point of voting when no is not an option?"
With nearly 27,000 people sharing four lanes on Bruce B. Downs, the interests of homeowners differ increasingly from those of home builders. And if the council gives Scala a final blessing at the second reading on July 19, a precedent of automatic approval may be set, years before Bruce B. Downs is widened to six lanes.
"They certainly aren't required to be a rubber stamp and go along with what their planning staff does," said attorney Tom Pelham, a former secretary for the Department of Community Affairs.
But Pelham acknowledged that rezonings are complicated because they fall into what is known as quasi-judicial legal matters. Council members often must base their decision on whether the developer has met planning requirements, and not simply rely on public opinion.
"(Their decision) can't be legally made because 2,000 residents show up and say, "We don't like this project, deny it!' " Pelham said.
While Scala is a relatively small project, this point of contention could return in the months ahead. Larger projects like one proposed at the K-Bar Ranch, calling for up to 3,500 new homes, are likely to end up on the council's agenda.
Separately, the County Commission will likely consider a plan for about 1,590 new homes in Live Oak Preserve, across from Scala on the other side of Bruce B. Downs, but outside the city limits. Further north, hundreds and perhaps thousands of new homes are planned in and around Meadow Pointe.
"We can't put up a wall at the Pasco County line," said Buckhorn. He ended up supporting the Scala project after the developer agreed to contribute up to $1.5-million to the widening of Bruce B. Downs and build the project in phases.
"We have to find a way to accommodate the growth, while at the same time making sure that the growth pays it fair share," he said. "That's the best we can do."
Harrison, who represents New Tampa and lives in Tampa Palms, disagreed.
"We could have denied it, lock, stock and barrel," he said.
Among his reasons: Transportation officials from both the city and the county say Bruce B. Downs cannot handle its current traffic load.
Residents representing the New Tampa Transportation Task Force, a local civic association, voiced their objections at the hearing.
The city's transportation department had objected to Scala and only gave its approval two days before the rezoning, when the developer agreed to build the project in phases. Now, they must delay the apartments until the city's infrastructure can accommodate the population, what planners call concurrency.
Long-term goals, short-term concerns
But concurrency does not mean the road has to be finished, just funded in a five-year plan. Harrison believes that reason alone gave council justification for denial.
"We have no obligation to enter into an agreement with this developer (based on) some nebulous point in the future when everyone decides to meet concurrency," he said.
Saul-Sena, a former urban planner, said roads and schools in New Tampa are already overcrowded.
"I don't feel it is responsible to support more residents up there until we meet the needs of existing residents," she said.
Council members Charlie Miranda and Rose Ferlita both declined to comment until after the second reading. Mary Alvarez and Gwen Miller did not return phone calls. All four voted to approve the rezoning.
Terry Cullen, an executive planner for the City-County Planning Commission, said that the City Council can approve or deny a rezoning, even if the commission finds that it meets the county's long-term growth plan. What may work under the comprehensive plan, may not satisfy elected officials.
That's because the commission makes recommendations to the City Council based on whether the development addresses long-term impacts on the environment and public facilities, such as parks, he said. The agency does not focus on short-term impacts, such as traffic lights.
"Consistency with the (comprehensive) plan is only one aspect of it," he said. "That's why this is not an administrative thing. It's a political process. ... Residents' input can mean a lot."
In the case of the Scala rezoning, Cullen said regional planners and city staff worked for months on reducing the density and preserving land along Trout Creek. In the end, the developer made several concessions.
But opponents point out that people who live in an area look to their political leaders, not planning staffs, to respond to their concerns.
"We did not elect the staff," said attorney Tom Reese, who has represented the Sierra Club in cases against developments and the governments that approve them.
"And a lot of times the staff is really concerned about making recommendations of denial because they would get in trouble. The safer thing is to recommend approval."
But while denial can result in a lawsuit, so can a vote to approve a project. Reese's former client sued the city of Tampa last fall after the council approved Grand Hampton, a planned community right next to Scala. That suit is still pending.
"They always threaten to sue," said Reese. "As I tell my clients, all it takes is pencil, paper and a filing fee."
-- Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472. Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3463.
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