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County: New land-code amendment will reflect intent of Ruskin Community Plan

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image Ruskin’s Mariella Smith discusses the new Land Development Code with county attorney Adam Gormley and Joe Moreda, director of the county’s planning and zoning division. Photo Kevin Brady

Those who worked on the existing Ruskin Community Plan for more than two years fear that county officials want to reopen it.

The Ruskin Community Plan, hammered out over two years, more than 40 public meetings and involving hundreds of residents, developers and landowners, is supposed to be a guideline for future development.

The vision for the future of the historic South County community covers, among others things, future development of downtown Ruskin, economic growth, parks and transportation.

The county says a new amendment is needed to implement a key part of the plan, which was adopted in 2005.

The content is dry and concise by necessity; these types of plans and land codes dictate almost every aspect of a community’s quality of life, from how many and what types of homes can be built to what types of businesses can operate.

“Ruskin will continue to be a community that preserves its small-town character, celebrates its unique history and agricultural past, embraces its multicultural diversity and protects its abundant natural resources,” according to the plan’s introduction.

The 16-page, 3,200-word  community plan can be found as a link with this story online at www.observernews.net.

The plan outlines specific guidelines for land use, density and lot sizes in four areas of Ruskin.  For example, single-family detached homes are recommended for one area while multifamily townhomes are suggested in another.

The plan’s vision statement says: “Our plan identifies four distinct neighborhoods, each having a defined character that provides home styles serving all Ruskin residents. The scale and type of residential development shall vary according to the character of each of the four neighborhoods that were identified during our community mapping exercise.”

All of which, residents were assured when the plan was officially adopted in 2005 by the Hillsborough County Commission, would be implemented.  No changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan or Land Development Code would be needed, residents were told at the time.

In fact, the guidelines have been cited in Ruskin rezoning cases verbatim since 2005 without objection from the county attorney’s office or developers.

But last April, after a developer’s challenge, county attorney Adam Gormley ruled the community plan’s guidelines would have to be incorporated into the Land Development Code to have any legal standing.

While the community plan guidelines are referenced in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, a touchstone document that identifies goals for future development, the guidelines are not specifically laid out in the Comprehensive Plan.

“The fact that these guidelines are not specifically written into the [county’s] Comprehensive Plan or the Land Development Code is not new,” said Mariella Smith. “Everybody knew this from the beginning, including staff, the public, county commissioners and the county attorney, and we were all assured that this was no mistake, and it would not stop the enforcement of our plan’s guidelines.” 

Smith, a Ruskin resident, was one of about 30 community activists who helped draw up the community plan, attending almost every meeting over two years between 2003 and 2005. Hundreds of others attended at least some of the meetings, giving their input on future growth.

Now the county is proposing a new amendment to the Land Development Code to fix the oversight.

“The intent of the Land Development Code amendment is to give those guidelines the ability to be recognized,” attorney Gormley said. “The amendment will introduce those guidelines into a regulatory format people can find, give the guidelines status while also recognizing they are not hard and fast rules.”

The draft amendment identifies the four areas as:

Area 1: The Old Ruskin neighborhood west of downtown will feature lower density single-family housing in keeping with the traditional character of the area.

Area 2: This area east of downtown and west of the Interstate 75 employment center will accommodate a variety of housing types, including multifamily and entry-level.

Area 3: This area south of College Avenue will accommodate a more suburban style of residential development with safeguards for the redevelopment of property along the Manatee River.

Area 4: This area southeast of I-75 will retain its rural and agricultural character and provide for enhanced interaction and access to the publicly owned lands adjacent to the Little Manatee River.

The amendment, as written, does not reflect the spirit of the community plan, say opponents,  many of whom turned out March 24 at a standing-room-only public meeting on the issue at the SouthShore Regional Library. They would like the proposed amendment to be specific, identifying lot sizes, for example.

The draft “does not reflect the original intent of the community plan, but even worse, it makes this whole land development code amendment pointless,” Smith said in a March 22 letter to county officials. “It lets an applicant choose not to comply with the guidelines as long as they comply with the small bit of the [plan’s]vision statement.”

“My sense was that the county representatives at the meeting were not committed to the Ruskin Community Plan,” said John Keith, who, with his wife Glenda, helped draft the community plan. He wants the Hillsborough County Commission to vote the entire plan “into law” immediately.

Keith fears county officials want to reopen the community plan, which would be a disaster for Ruskin, he says. “It took us two years to come up with the existing plan,” he said, “and by the time we would put another plan together,  the development in Ruskin would be a fait accompli.”

Ron Wolfe, who also helped draft the original plan, is cautiously optimistic.

He said his understanding is that the failure to include the original Ruskin Community Plan guidelines in the county code “was simply a staff oversight and that the county commissioners are sympathetic to what has gone on and have agreed to help correct the error. I plan to stay in touch with the issue, but I am hopeful,” Wolfe said.

Joe Moreda, director of the county’s planning and zoning division,  said he heard the concerns of residents at the meeting and that the language of the amendment will be changed.

“Our objective is to work with the language [of the amendment] to make sure it’s very clear,” he said. “We want a process where the guidelines are evaluated for the spirit and intent of what the [community] plan articulated.”  

Any changes to the amendment can be found at hillsboroughcounty.org/ldcamendments under “Land Development Code 14-0474.”

“The small lots are something the community agreed that we wanted for a certain scale and type of development,” said Smith, who wants a moratorium on Ruskin rezonings until the amendment issue is concluded.

“The county should fix its own mistakes, while continuing to uphold our plan, without making the citizens grind through an unnecessary, wasteful do-over of all the workshops and meetings we did eight years ago,” said Smith, who called the guidelines for lot size, land use and density a “small but integral part of the plan.”

The guidelines were “a grand bargain between developer and citizens when the Community Plan was drawn up,” Smith said. “We were negotiated down to this on our side. We all agreed to this.”

Smith has proposed additional language for the Land Development Code amendment, calling it “an easy fix.”

“If you are not going to meet the letter of the guidelines, then you need to show you are meeting the spirit of the guidelines,” Smith said.

With the process on the fast track, “we have been asked to expedite this,” Moreda said. Smith said she and and others will be keeping a close eye on how the proposed draft amendment language evolves.

“They will be hearing from lots of people, including those who want to throw the guidelines out, so will I be watching closely? You betcha,” Smith said.

Have your say at public meetings, by email

Next up for the proposed amendment, is a Board of County Commissioners workshop on the issue, April 8, at the County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. A Planning Commission workshop follows on April 14. Then the first public hearing before county commissioners on the amendment will be held April 24. The Planning Commission will review the issue again May 12 and make its recommendation before a final public hearing prior to the county commission on May 29, when a vote is expected to be taken on the amendment.

A video of the March 24 public meeting on the issue is available on You Tube. Search for “Ruskin land development code.”

Call or email, respectively, your suggestions on the proposed amendment to John E. Healey, executive planner, community development section, 813-276-8393 or  healeyj@hillsboroughcounty.org.

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