By STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON
The Balm Civic Association’s attempt to stop or reduce development of nearly 400 housing units on 178 acres of an abandoned orange grove fell short of its goal, leaving the developers in the driver’s seat. Acting on the recommendation of the zoning hearing master, the Hillsborough County Commission at its Tuesday meeting voted 5-2 to approve the application of the Eisenhower Group for C.R. 672 and Shelley Lakes Lane in Balm. County commissioners voting Yes were Stacy White of District 4, Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham, Sandra Murman and Ken Hagan. Voting No were Pat Kemp and Les Miller.
White explained his affirmative vote saying he had no choice because of the wording of the comprehensive plan.
“We took a hard hit on this one,” said a member of the Balm Civic Association which had a least hoped to obtain some major concessions. The disappointed Balm resident said his group had requested a buffer zone affecting 70 percent of the proposed development, but this was slashed to only 2.96 percent. The other concession was also minor: As the density was not transferred from one parcel to the other, this was deemed “more or less meaningless” by the Balm opponents to Tampa’s Eisenhower Development Group proposal.
Mike Fabbro, president of the Balm Civic Association, has previously maintained that Hillsborough County is disregarding the Balm Community Plan and circumventing many of the county’s land-use guidelines by giving the green light to the Balm development.
Now that the Balm developers, Eisenhower Property Group of Tampa, have prevailed in the latest round at the county level, another gigantic development proposal is moving through the process which could create more suburban sprawl.
That proposed mega-development for southeast Hillsborough County could affect over 4,000 acres of pasture and farmland in the once-wide-open spaces of this pastoral niche of the county.
Once again, it is the Eisenhower Group, and two other large developers, licking their chops to get their hands and their bulldozers on undeveloped land in Hillsborough County, which is outside the present urban service area. In a detailed, expensive and extensive 144-page report prepared by consultants and lawyers for Eisenhower et al., the developers point out their rationale. They maintain prospective homeowners and renters who want to live near their work sites have nowhere to go in Hillsborough County.
The two developers joining forces with Eisenhower are Ag-Mart Produce, Inc. of Naples and McGrady Road Investment of Winter Haven. In a report entitled “Balm-Riverview Application for Comprehensive Plan Text Amendment,” the three developers target 4,413 acres south of the Lithia area, which are now in the rural land-use category. Developers maintain that the proposed change they desire “would aid in creating a workforce housing supply while also providing community amenities and capitalizing on the existing commercial uses in the area.”
A public hearing on the proposed code change for development was previously set for Oct. 11, at the County Center in Tampa. However, this privately initiated change, labeled Land Development Code 18-0370 Text Amendment to LDC Part 5.04.00 Planned Village, has been re-scheduled to an as-of-yet undetermined date. According to Melissa Zornitta, the executive director of the county Planning Commission, any public hearing on this huge parcel will have to be set by the County Commissioners, probably after the November elections.
At that hearing, developers are expected to push for their concept, which they term “an increase in residential density when the community quality enhancement options are met.”
Opponents, most of whom live in the southeastern part of Hillsborough County and include mainly the Balm Civic Association and Balm residents, are mobilizing support for their position. They state that the developers want to rezone the nearly 5,000 acres from two houses per acre to three houses per acre. Opponents fear that change will lead to traffic jams as well as stress on roads and schools in the area. This, opponents claim, will create what many term “urban sprawl.” Others identify such development as “progress.”
One opponent, Bud Harwell, said the developers’ request sounds innocent enough. “I know their proposal does not sound too bad,” he said, “but the developers would also get to cluster the houses in the development. This clustering means they can build the house on lots that are only 4,000 to 6,000 square feet.” Harwell explained further that this means, “Developers can cluster the houses all together in the development instead of spacing them out evenly.”
Harwell warned, “This clustering, in turn, would leave the open space for the developers to come back at a later date to build even more houses in the same development.”
Harwell continued, “This is a far cry from our current zoning which is one house per five or 10 acres. All this takes place outside the urban service area.”
Officially the developers’ request is to change or amend the Comprehensive Plan for Unincorporated Hillsborough Future Land Use Element. “We need to stop this privately initiated land amendment from getting passed,” urged Harwell.
The developers quote a 2017 market study to support their claim for the land use code change. They say builders in the Tampa metro area cannot find homes and/or lots that will enable them to build affordable homes to meet the needs of entry-level buyers, including retired and workforce participants, and that increases in governmental fees and regulations, and rising labor and materials’ costs have increased home prices exponentially. The developers’ report goes on to point out that an employment cluster in the Ruskin-Apollo Beach-Sun City Center area will continue to grow due in great part to the opening of the burgeoning Amazon distribution facility, which now employs 2,500 workers. Thus, the developers feel the need for the proposed residential development, which could come about with the proposed zoning-use changes they support.
The developers’ report ironically refers to a “suburban dream scenario” or a “primarily low-density residential growth with employment spread across the county” including this southeast sector of Hillsborough which, in addition to scattered homes and farms, is now primarily scrub land, agricultural, upland forests, wetlands and wildlife habitats. The suburban dream scenario estimates population in Hillsborough County to soar from 1.3 million presently to 1.8 million by 2040 and jobs to increase from the current 800,000 range to an estimated 1 million in the same time frame. Impacted will be fire and emergency medical services, law enforcement, recreation and open space, public facilities, water/sewer/garbage, roads and transportation, and, of course, schools.