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County committee of and for developers under scrutiny

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A governmental committee heavy with real estate development interests and strong South County connections is drawing fire from community advocates.

By MELODY JAMESON

From its name to its function to its objectives, a governmental committee heavy with real estate development interests and strong South County connections is drawing fire from community advocates.

Those questioning a group dubbed the Economic Prosperity Stakeholders Committee – including one of its members - refer to it in terms like “sham,” suggest in so many words it is “out of control” and characterize it as mostly a ticket to prosperity for developers.

Hold on there, respond two others of its members, including its chairwoman. They defend the five-month-old committee as doing precisely what it was intended to do and a creation of Hillsborough’s county commissioners, established and functioning as they envisioned.

The EPSC came into being in March, composed of 21 members appointed by commissioners and with the express purpose of “making recommendations for a comprehensive revision of the Land Development Regulations with a focus on promoting economic prosperity.”

An outline of the group on the county’s website notes that in view of the current “severe economic downturn” and the governmental obligation “to protect health, life and property,” local government has a role in fostering a skilled workforce as well as in the creation of private capital and innovation. “In other words, promoting economic prosperity.”

To that end, commissioners appointed and approved the committee membership consisting overwhelmingly of builders and contractors, large scale developers, land use and real estate attorneys, with a title company associate representing the African-American community, a Hispanic representative affiliated with a development investment company and an architect added in. The group also includes two environmental activists. It is co-chaired by commissioners Sandy Murman, whose district one includes Southshore communities, and Les Miller, district three commissioner.

In addition, according to the defining overview that explains the group, its impetus and its objectives, a Technical Support Group (TSG) was formed of pertinent staff members and other organizations with related knowledge to assist the committee “with data and analysis required to support recommendations.”

 What this really adds up to is a bad economy and a scarcity of jobs being used as “red herrings beneath which a lot of skullduggery can be accomplished,” says Marcella O’Steen, community activist and immediate past president of the Balm Civic Association. The group, she adds, “has big potential to do harm and to undo ‘good” , even beyond wetlands issues that so frequently have been battle grounds between citizens and developers in the past.

In even stronger terms, Terry Flott, president of the advocacy group UCAN, says the committee already has gotten “way out of control,” expanding its oversight to include issues and items not part of its scope of work. she asserts the committee now is focused on “attacking protective wetlands rules, getting rid of community planning and plans, creating a moratorium on impact fees and eliminating the practice of concurrency” which requires developers to contribute to the infrastructure necessary for their profit-making ventures rather than putting citizens on the hook for it.

What was intended originally to be a review of the land use code has become an “everything under the sun” takedown, Flott adds, with the objective being a freer ride for developers relieved of impact fees, concurrency obligations, wetlands protections and the community plan visions expressed by citizens.

What’s more, average citizens and community advocates are being completely left out of the process, limited to just three minutes of comment only at the end of meetings, Flott says. Moreover, she adds, no meeting minutes are being made public on the county website, although the meetings are being videotaped at her request. The average citizen, though, might have difficulty understanding what is transpiring with only videotape information and without the supporting documentation used by the committee, Flott says.

And when it’s over, the advocate notes, committee recommendations will go to the seven county commissioners from a group led by two of them, meaning that half of the four votes needed for majority commission approval will be in place even before a vote is taken. Just two more votes from among the remaining five and the county’s land use code may be jeopardized at the expense of its citizens for the benefit of the development industry, she suggests.

Concerned about a possible failure by officials to maintain a mandated separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of county government by constructing the committee as it has, Flott has formally asked for the legal opinion that supports the committee structure as it exists. If the separation of powers is shown not to be maintained, a violation of the county’s charter could be alleged.

George Neimann, another citizen watchdog long on the advocacy scene, calls the committee efforts “a complete sham” and the entire endeavor a “whitewash” of the realities understood by most citizens.

The approach being taken is the reverse of a tactic that actually might meet stated objectives, he asserts. If county officials really wanted to enhance prosperity and encourage job generation, they would be talking with and listening to other industries such as biotech and medical research and education, fostering their relocation to Hillsborough where they would generate local employment opportunities and then create demand for development to support the contractors and land use lawyers and real estate specialists, Neimann posits.

The county’s own figures demonstrate the folly of putting the development industry ahead of others, he adds. “For every $1 realized in tax revenue from residential development, it costs the county $1.50 in expenditures for services.” Neimann suggests that catering to development interests and not properly enforcing concurrency over the years is one of the reasons Hillsborough is in the hole today.

Economic development is a “great subject” worthy of consideration and easing permitting policies may be useful, he emphasizes. But, Neimann asks rhetorically “ are citizens picketing outside County Center demanding changes to the land use code?”

Mariella Smith, Ruskin resident, activist in community planning and the appointed EPSC representative of the Sierra Club, echoes many of the advocates’ complaints, beginning with the committee name. It’s supposed to be a county-wide committee and if the county’s prosperity were the real objective, a variety of business interests in addition to the development industry also would be involved, she notes. “We should be asking a number of industries what would attract them to this county to establish their operations rather than talking with only one industry, the developers,” she adds.

The term “streamlining” as in streamlining procedures, Smith says, is only code for what amounts to deregulation. And that deregulation in the form of expanding the urban services area in the South County and placing a moratorium on transportation impact fees and eliminating concurrency obligations only makes it cheaper and easier for developers while the citizens pay their bills, she notes. “We staved off those threats with the Ruskin Community Plan and we learned that leaving impact fees in place did not stop development.”

It is being estimated that Hillsborough’s needed but unfunded road improvements now total as much as $16 billion, the activist says, “and we do not need to build any more housing developments now.“

Smith also questions the way business currently is being conducted. Both Murman and Miller, the committee co-chairmen as well as county commissioners, along with Commissioner Victor Crist, all are former state legislators, she notes. In the legislature, back room deal making - “you vote for my project and I’ll vote for yours” – is the accepted method of operation, she observes. But the county, governed by its charter, is supposed to operate openly, in the sunshine, she adds. “We should be more straightforward.”

Murman, responding to questions with a voice mail message, referred to descriptions of the committee mission and objectives outlined on the county website, www.Hillsboroughcounty.org, within the departments listing. The committee, she affirms, is proceeding with its mission, including streamlining regulations and reducing fees for the development industry.

Each of the committee members, while mostly related to the industry on which the group is concentrating, were “thoroughly vetted” by commissioners, she adds.

Apollo Beach attorney Mike Peterson, appointed to the committee to represent the Tampa Bay Realtors Association, points out the group is “specifically designed to look at the Land Development Code and to conduct a regulatory review.” The committee’s clearly stated charge is to examine and recommend ways to ease the regulatory burden, thought to encourage development activity, which in turn should create jobs, leading ultimately to greater economic prosperity, he emphasizes. It is what the committee is doing, he asserts.

Peterson also notes that the committee’s shelf life initially was to have been five to six months and that timeframe already has been extended. It is not possible to “take on all things for all people,” he adds, even if they had been viewed as within the committee’s purview.

As for the committee title, considered by many to be misleading by implying an effort at broadened prosperity rather than a focus on one industry’s interests, Peterson acknowledges that other terms could have been used. It could have been named, for instance, “Regulatory Review Committee,” but such titling would not have much “cache,” he suggests.

 Peterson also points out that he sees the EPSC as one of several similar efforts, emerging from in-depth discussions about economic prosperity which took place on the county level a couple of years ago. The current focus on the development industry is simply one of a number of such endeavors to be undertaken over time, he suggests.

The attorney also asserts that “streamlining” in the committee’s context means making it quicker to deal with certain provisions of the LDC; making it easier to understand what is required and how to accomplish those requirements.

In addition, he agrees that environmental issues such as wetlands have been thorny subjects within committee meetings, but stands by the position he has taken previously. There is a distinct difference between “low quality wetlands” in specifically targeted areas and “high quality interconnected significant wildlife wetlands” he argues. “If we say we’re going to pursue infill development in targeted areas, should we not look at” and consider those differences, he continues.

An attorney who frequently has represented builders and developers, Peterson says that wetland rules have been vague when it comes to actual application, indicating he believes that clarification, with additional preciseness, is needed. However, he asserts, there is no reason to believe that such an effort is aimed at eliminating wetland rules altogether.

Looking ahead to a committee meeting scheduled Friday, he says that while he has not received an agenda for the session, he foresees the results of a recent survey being discussed as the committee works toward framing its recommendations.

The survey of 20 some questions, distributed to committee members and other interested parties including community advocates attending the meetings, is the beginning of a winnowing process necessary to pare down what the committee should handle.

The meeting is set for 1:30 PM at the Tampa Port Authority offices. A second session this month of the Economic Prosperity Stakeholders Committee has been scheduled for July 30.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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