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Citizen planners outline a future rooted in rural activity

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image Balm residents may recognize their community no longer is an isolated pocket of South Hillsborough County, but they still want to preserve every aspect possible of their rural agricultural lifestyle. Melody Jameson Photo

Balm community planners want to keep things country.

By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – Community planners here mean to keep this once-isolated pocket of Hillsborough agriculture on the country side.

Six of the 10 goals identified in their draft Balm Community Plan focus on maintaining agrarian activity, conserving open land, encouraging recreation of a rural style and eventually establishing a “hamlet” or “village” core as alterations wrought by development transpire. Few trappings of urban or suburban lifestyles are coveted here.

Citizen planners composed of both small homestead owners and large acreage holders have been at work on their guideline for a year, fashioning a mutually agreed-to vision of the little community which can trace its beginnings back a solid century.

And, while their outlooks now committed to paper could undergo changes as they are discussed and reviewed during forthcoming months, the final concepts may be ready for open house exhibit in May, Principal Planner Lisa Silva said this week. If a May date cannot be scheduled, an early autumn timeframe is likely, the professional planner added. Silva, a member of The Planning Commission staff, has been assisting the citizen planners.

Balm, established around turn of the 20th century by hardy rural families who earned livings in lumbering, crop farming, livestock ranching and phosphate mining, was generally unknown outside the South County region until late in the century. Balm’s settlers, proud of their self-sufficiency and able to meet their material, spiritual as well as educational needs locally, liked it that way.

And many of their descendants still do. The first goal outlined in their plan draft calls for continued strong support of agricultural endeavors as the community’s economic base, whether from crop production or ornamental horticulture, tropical fish farming or livestock ranching.

The plan’s third goal recognizes the potential need to diversify that base with alternative but related undertakings such as a comprehensive farmers’ market and community garden along with agricultural and ecological tourism, plus retail activity such as feed stores and machinery dealers.

Cognizant of the Balm Scrub, the extensive, natural state acreage bordering the community to the north and acquired through the county’s environmental lands purchase program, planners in their fifth goal call for creation of wildlife corridor connections to protect the area’s mammal, reptile and avian inhabitants, for parking facilities plus rest rooms and tables to accommodate those using the scrub lands for passive recreation, as well as for minimizing light pollution and pervasive artificial light through nighttime lighting standards.

Still focused on conserving the natural environment, the planners would have a multi-use pathway network through the community for biking, jogging, sightseeing, plus equestrian trails for riders and their mounts, as well as greenways connecting clustered housing and the village center when development comes. They made it all the crux of their ninth goal.

 Pointing out that the community has been burdened with such “liabilities” as a large assortment of borrow pits and an immense landfill, the citizen planners call also for a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s substation to enhance community safety and a satellite office of the county’s extension service to serve resident needs for help with composting, rain barrel water conservation and the like.

In addition, they emphasize the importance of maintaining their historic post office recently threatened with closure in a U.S. Postal Service cost savings effort plus restoration to full use of their county park with its civic center building and recreational ball fields which has been impacted by county cutbacks. They also assert the value of expanding the community partnership with the University of Florida’s ag research and experiment center on its east side.

And, while other South Hillsborough community plans were hammered out only after intense debate over the number of housing units to be permitted per acre in a given area, Balm’s planners at this point have made it simple. They want the current rural housing density maintained: one unit per five acres or less, discouraging suburban scale density and conventional subdivision development.

Yet, they realize, in time development will come to their settlement tucked away east of U.S. 301, still outside existing urban service areas, largely beyond public potable water lines and sewage disposal systems. When it does, they would have clustered housing with the village center situated near their long-standing post office and around the Andrews and Balm Roads intersection. Here they envision the “commercial neighborhood” of shops and eateries, perhaps a bed and breakfast inn, all of it connected via pedestrian linkages to the community’s churches, library, school, parks, etc.

As Balm’s plan is being polished, Silva said contacts are being made with the various governmental agencies involved because of specific items included in the guideline. For example, she added, it is necessary to determine what if any changes on the county level must be made to facilitate creation of a community garden and to pin down rural design standards for community signage.

The next community meeting on the plan is set for 6 PM, Tuesday, March 20, in Balm’s civic center building, Silva said. At that time, a Mosaic representative is expected to give the planning group an overview of the phosphate mining company’s outlook for its not-yet-mined tracts in the Balm area.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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