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Light use show business overlay proposed for Tropical Acres

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image Residents from Gibsonton to Tropical Acres filled the Riverview Civic Center to capacity on April 23 and expressed strong opinions. Melody Jameson Photo

Opposing forces point to discriminatory “profiling” and “stacking the deck.”

By Melody Jameson

RIVERVIEW – As professional planners strive for “balance” with a “show business light” land use overlay here, the opposing forces they’re trying to accommodate point to discriminatory “profiling” and “stacking the deck.”

In fact, few of either the amusement business operators or the affected area homeowners involved are taken with a proposal by The Planning Commission to amend Hillsborough’s Comprehensive Plan with a new category allowing limited amusement show business uses in Tropical Acres and to create supporting land use code as a means of dealing with an unsettled rezoning petition.  

And, with very firmly stated convictions, they made it clear in a recent standing-room-only community meeting at the Riverview Civic Center, hosted by the planning commission.

As a result, a couple of public hearings have been postponed and a series of differently-structured community meetings soon could be scheduled.

The situation dates back to 2008 when an RSB – residential show business – rezoning was sought by representatives of the Arnold family which operates Arnold Amusements and owns several parcels in Tropical Acres. The RSB designation, allowing various activities related to show business functions on residential property, long has existed in Gibsonton, and in other communities. The 2008 rezoning petition ultimately was rejected.

However, those acceptable show business functions performed in residential areas of Gibsonton were not legal on the Arnold parcels in TA or on some 30 other sites in the 40-year-old mobile home development. And, in 2011, efforts to establish the RSB zoning classification was renewed, this time on 39 scattered TA parcels.

Opposition formed in the surrounding and much newer residential subdivisions such as Shadow Run, Summer Springs, Creek view and Moss Landings. The newcomers, some of them heavily invested in their site-built homes during the housing boom, objected to legitimizing what they considered to be unsightly storage of heavy amusement industry equipment and temporary sub-standard housing for itinerant carnival workers on neighboring acreage. They complained about crime in TA and whispered about potential harassment.

Late last year, the planners made separate tours of the area with both proponents and opponents. Subsequently, they produced the proposed  lighter use show business overlay for TA,  reserving  the “heavy” use overlay for Gibsonton, in comp plan amendment form, along with prospective code language that is supposed to enforce amendment provisions.

Show business overlay light in TA would permit limited storage of amusement industry equipment on a residential site and provide for screening to minimize impacts on surrounding properties, but exclude the more intense uses such as equipment repair and accessory dwelling units allowed in Gibsonton and consistent with its approved community plan.

The objective is a “balance”,  said Melissa Zornitta, professional   planner and group leader on The Planning Commission staff.  And, the approach taken by the commission staff planners succeeds in limiting the show business uses to the two areas, TA and Gibsonton, she added.

So far, however, it’s missing the mark from the show business operators’ perspective, indicated Lee Stephens, a traveling amusement industry concessionaire, Showman’s Association leader and past president of Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton. The showmen want to retain the option of seeking the RSB zoning designation on property anywhere in the county; to have the same options and same freedoms available to every other citizen, rather than be fenced in, in two specific locales, he asserted.

In Shadow Run, an upscale residential development which borders the northeast edge of TA, the same degree of resistance is being expressed, but for different reasons. Stan Klos, former contractor who puts the dollar investment in his family’s  home there in the high six figures, said the TA overlay would mean that the 1,000-plus parcels in the development all could be zoned RSB, effectively making the entire community into amusement truck, trailer, van, RV, ride and concession equipment storage central.

Larry Habeck, active Showman’s Association member and another amusement operator whose Riverview headquarters north of TA was zoned RSB more than 30 years ago, suggests that the proposed overlay light serves mostly to “dilute” RSB, “watering down” the uses allowed under RSB there. “It’s troublesome,” he said, “that there’s not going to be much left in RSB” in terms of uses important to amusement business operators.

Activist Terry Flott, president of the advocacy group United Citizens Action Network (UCAN),  takes issue with the entire overlay concept in connection with TA. While numerous overlays have been established for various purposes around the county – Sun City Center as a retirement enclave, for example, is covered with an age-restriction overlay - the TA proposal is “getting the cart before the horse,” Flott noted.  Trying to create a comp plan amendment and adding the code language amounts to “making policy and rule in advance of a coming rezoning petition in order to ensure  the rezoning is consistent with the county’s comp plan  and land use code” when it is heard.

Planning Commission staff, though, respond on that point by asserting “Policy decisions about generally where these unique land uses should be located need to be made prior to such rezoning moving forward.”

Flott counters that, in fairness, rezoning requests should stand or fall on their own merits. “Stacking the deck” in favor of the rezoning clearly is not fair, she added.

And, these are not the only concerns being voiced by the various factions. Stephens emphasized the numerous charitable events and activities that the Showman’s Association conducts and underwrites each year which directly benefit the South County – the annual circus, the new museum, Christmas gifts for children, and more.  In addition, there’s the property and sales taxes the 2,000 or so showmen who call South Hillsborough home pay regularly, he said.

Yet, Stephens asserted, the showmen ask for very little from their government even as their “industry is being choked” with regulations and restrictions, fees and forms. The amusement business often is a family business, both in terms of its entertainments and products as well as in terms of its operators, he added, but showmen also are the victims of a “profiling that is undeserved.”

Klos raised the issue of enforcing the show business overlay code at a time when the county’s code enforcement department is underfunded and short staffed.  The department cannot keep up with current demands, he said, asking rhetorically how it would maintain compliance with the new overlay light restrictions if hundreds of TA properties were designated RSB as allowed under the proposed amendment and code when owners successfully petition for the rezoning.

This question has been alluded to in the past by Bill Langford, long time county code enforcement officer, who has suggested information from department files be considered in evaluating the overlay.  Code issues of the past in TA well might multiply under the proposed overlay, he has indicated.   

And Klos hit on a factor that concerns Flott as well – who, exactly, defines vague or ambiguous terms.  Klos questioned whether the words “light” and “heavy” as they apply to show business uses in TA and Gibsonton would be fully enough defined to prevent abuses.  Flott scoffed at use of the word “etc” in the code or amendment language, indicating it could become a loophole inviting abuses.

After the contentious community meeting in Riverview on April 23,  there was another sign of common ground, too, even if from differing perspectives.  Klos, a new member of the Shadow Run HOA board, said without equivocation “We’re not concerned about the show business folks who live in TA now. We do not have negative feelings toward the show business folks there now.” If only the original 39 parcels were zoned RSB, there would be no problem, he added.

And, for his part in a separate interview, Stephens declared we should “just give the 39 properties the freedom of a non-conforming use and be done with it.”  After all, he added, “what we want most is to be left alone.”

Habeck echoed the sentiment, saying “all we want to do is live here and be good neighbors.”  

In another development, Zornitta said this week that public hearings originally slated for May and June would be postponed, probably until November or December, and possibly into early 2013. The delay, she noted, would allow all interested parties to consider the draft proposals and allow for return of the show business operators from their summer and fall carnival and festival circuits through northern states.

In the meantime, the planner added, a series of individual community meetings with each the factions may be scheduled in late summer or early fall. 

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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