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2011: a year of more challenges?

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By MELODY JAMESON
mj@observernews.net

2011graphicWith a new year and a new decade, come hope…for improvement in economic conditions, for better choices by governments, for a little more tolerance of neighbors’ needs and a little less me, me, me.

But, as South Hillsborough County citizens ponder the onrushing new year, they’re not exactly embracing it with joyful abandon. In fact, they see plenty of challenges on the horizon that are neither trivial nor new. A dozen of them spoke with The Observer this week about their concerns.

And, many of those challenges are tied directly to governmental actions, from what is considered faulty decision-making by both elected as well as non-elected officials to public safety. The lingering problems still hovering on the horizon, citizens say, range from inadequate means of transportation to a feared pick up in over development to preservation of property rights. Most come down to money.

Gibsonton native Jeanie Johnson did not mince words when queried about the challenges ahead. “Developers, developers, developers” she asserted, continue to pose problems for the South County. In at least two instances along Symmes Road the residential developers were issued county permits contingent upon their commitments to make necessary roadway improvements.

Today, the developments are built with some of the homes already in foreclosure, none of the road widening or turn lanes or signalization was done and the developers are long gone, she said.

“They put up performance bonds for that work. Where did that money go?” she asked. Accidents occur almost daily where the developers shirked their obligations, she added.

“It’s frustrating, really, really frustrating,” Johnson said, “and I’m tired of being duped. Developers shafting us is and apparently will continue to be our biggest problem.”

It’s the other side of that coin which most concerns Gerald Davis, a large landowner in Balm. Davis, the son of early settlers and engaged in agriculture there his entire life, foresees a continuing fight in 2011 to preserve the private property rights to which he and landowners like him believe they are entitled. After working the land for decades to produce foodstuffs for public consumption, to support family, to pay taxes, they cherish a belief the land is theirs to dispose of in whatever legal manner desired.

It’s not that the owners of acreages actively want to encourage harmful development, he suggested, but if selling the land to developers, taking the profit out of it when it cannot be passed on to another generation, is the desired option, that should be the right of the owner, “without the interference of government or anyone else.”

Davis and others like him may begin making their case in January when Balm’s community planning process is scheduled to begin.

South Countians also see transportation issues as challenges coming back in the new year. Dominic Gebbia, a former police officer living in Apollo Beach who favored the one cent sales tax increase that was defeated in the general election, sees two public transportation problems demanding solution.

There are increasing numbers of local residents who no longer can drive personal vehicles, he pointed out. They need clean, reliable, frequent public transportation – probably in the form of busses, he emphasized.

Another crying need is more school bus transportation, he added. Youngsters in some sections of the waterfront community are walking several long blocks, mornings and afternoons, sometimes in the dark, to get to and from school bus stops distant from their homes. Because there are not many sidewalks in Apollo Beach and residents often park vehicles along curbs, children are walking in the middle of streets. “It’s very, very unsafe,” the retired cop said firmly.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Don Schings, SCC resident, longtime CA board director and South County liaison to county level transportation agencies. Schings characterized the bus service fielded in South Hillsborough by Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit (HART) as “horrendous.” HART states that 2.5 to three years are required to build a route, he said, but the agency does not leave a SoCo route in place long enough to establish it. Yet there is an increasing need for the service, he added.

Another transportation matter Schings foresees requiring attention soon, despite failure of the sales tax increase for transportation purposes, are the exits from I-75 to east and west bound Big Bend Road. Apollo Beach and Summerfield commuter traffic, in particular, trying to get off the interstate late in the day now backs up into the high speed lanes, he noted.

An aspect of the multi-faceted South County transportation problem underscored by Bob Minthorn, a retired school administrator who lives on the Alafia River in Gibsonton, involves over development. Minthorn said he’s worried that as economic recovery takes hold – as is likely in the next year or two – “we’ll return to the same old mess, allowing development without adequate infrastructure.”

The number of new houses already approved for construction in South Hillsborough is “staggering,” he asserted. “We wouldn’t need another one for decades.” Without the infrastructure needed now, Minthorn added, “it’ll be back to business as usual and then we’ll have another Dale Mabry.”

This matter of an over-built supply of buildings also top lists of 2011 challenges for two more South County citizens on the west side. Bruce Davis, who lives in age-restricted SouthShore Falls south of Apollo Beach and operates a youth gymnastic facility in Apollo Beach, points to the considerable amount of unoccupied SoCo commercial space. The thousands of square feet of empty commercial space is something the diverse communities of the South County will have to wrestle with in the coming short term, he suggested.

From the Big Bend Road site of the Kings Lake strip center, four years old and 100 percent empty, to the five buildings at the Mira Bay Shoppes anchored by Sweet Bay Supermarket, built about three years ago and still about 65 percent empty, to the Harbour business center on the north side of Apollo Beach Boulevard about the same age and at least 60 percent empty, these unused spaces reflect a “big problem” in South Hillsborough , Davis added.

Jeanette Doyle, an AB resident who, like Davis, opposes proposed rezoning at the former AB Rescue Squad site to allow multiple professional office buildings, also points out it would be simple logic that government encourage use of existing structures before approving more to stand empty.

Kings Pointer Pat Boussie, former member of the gated condo community’s KP Federation Board, also faults governmental decision making when she suggests another issue that may soon come back to haunt the South County as well as other counties in Florida is the class room size mandate made a state constitution amendment by voters. “Too many voters do not think through” what’s on the ballot, the former industrial engineer said; “just because it’s on the ballot doesn’t mean it’s workable. One size does not fit all.”

Boussie called for, too, a closer look in 2011 at mass transit for South Hillsborough, even though “leaders will have their work cut out for them.”

Back in Balm, Marcella O’Steen, a transplant from her native Wauchula who is current president of the community’s civic association, balanced what has been historically a South County complaint with recent provisions in the area by county government. SoCo “has always had a … problem getting our ‘piece of the pie” in terms of tax dollars spent here, she said. On the other hand, she added, “ recently, we’ve gotten a wonderful regional library and a county services center.”

But, the watchwords in the new year will be financial constraints, O’Steen said. Two of its biggest problems in 2011 – a lack of jobs and increasing costs of living - are not unique to the South County, she noted, adding that the jobs forecast, in particular, is not good. “Put these two factors together,” O’Steen asserted, “and you have little reason for optimism. We are in for more belt tightening times.” The conditions, she concluded, are going to require learning “to stretch a dollar as our parents and grandparents did.”

Natalie Castillo in Ruskin echoed the outlook. The lack of work coupled with increases in basic living expenses such as electricity is creating an impossible squeeze for many. Her self-employed father with his own truck, she said, is unable to put together enough loads to produce a week’s work “but every day you hear about something else going up” in cost. “What are we supposed to do,” she asked rhetorically.

Ruskin small business owner Sandy Council doesn’t have the answer, but she suspects where government expects to make up some of its deficit – from the small business operator. In 2011, Council said she anticipates both state and county agencies will impose new fees on businesses – “things never before enforced” – in order to deal with budget shortfalls. “And trying to make it up on the backs of small business will not work,” she declared.

Realtor Susie Collins, however, adopts a positive approach as she looks ahead to the new year. Collins, who practices primarily in Sun City Center, said by year’s end she will have participated in 54 sales during 2010, fully 10 percent of everything sold in the community during the last year. And 2011, she indicated, probably will meet or beat that standard.

And, yes, she acknowledged, a moderately hot real estate sales market may not return for another three to five years. But, “sellers are becoming more realistic” and the “baby boomer buyers are looking” for investments or future retirement nests, she added.

“There still will be good deals,” she summed up, “just no steals.”

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson

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