Citizen planners split their union in growing animosity

Published on: March 20, 2012


LITTLE MANATEE SOUTH — “Irreconcilable differences” are being cited as cause of the “divorce” that last week split apart the community planning group here.

It probably is a first in the 30-year history of regional and community planning in the South County.

Differences frequently have simmered as small lot homeowners and large acreage land holders have tried together to draft future development plans involving both preservation of their existing neighborhoods so vigorously defended and their yet unrealized small cities foreseen as sprouting profitably in former pastures and groves.

The gap between the two was apparent in the 1980s when the first SouthShore AreaWide Plan was taking shape and continued in the last decade as community citizens from Riverview to Ruskin, from Wimauma to Gibsonton, huddled together at regular intervals, sometimes in heated exchanges, to compromise ultimately, sufficiently to create mutually acceptable visions for their future locales. The final agreements often evolved with the concerted help of Hillsborough County professional planners guiding the process.

But last week, for the Little Manatee South citizen planners, the inevitable variances of viewpoints and growing mistrust of motives came to a head. A majority of what had been dubbed the Implementation Group aiming for Phase II planning covering still open tracts supported a move to effectively eject Sundance community residents who expressed in various words at various times their fears about the underlying meanings of fresh planning. There was no professional planning staff present.

The majority lined up behind Mike Peterson, an Apollo Beach-based land use attorney involved in many planning efforts over the years and whose clients include area large land owners. In an overview he titled “Sundance Attempting to Overwhelm Other Interests Within Little Manatee River South Community Plan,” Peterson referred to the “Sundance Factor” as “a concern that can’t be ignored.” He asserted that “Sundance actions are causing confusion about whether they speak for most south of the river regarding planning concerns” He suggested that many of the large tract owners who have long been interested in long range planning have been asked to accommodate the environmental, equestrian and community desires of others who, in turn, change nothing on their properties. He questioned that Sundance residents should “have equal say on what should occur” on the properties of others.

Peterson also raised the matter of renaming the area, using “Uzita” and “Uzita Shores” as possibilities and positing that the historical ties “might win over those clinging to the failed dream of Sun City, particularly given the constant confusion with Sun City Center.”

In the end, Peterson moved that the Little Manatee River South Implementation Group be reformed, without the Sundance stakeholder seats, and renamed to reflect that it does not speak for the Sundance portion of the community plan. His motion was supported by a vote of six to three.

For their part, the Sundance residents present in last week’s meeting entered objections early. Before Peterson took the floor, Bob Iocca, co-vice chairman of the group, asked that the meeting be devoted to discussion of a January proposal by Bob Hunter, retiring executive director of The Planning Commission, related to the Phase II advanced planning. This request was turned aside by Will Redd, the implementation group’s chairman and representative of one of the larger land owners, the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Sundance citizens also suggested unsuccessfully the tabling Peterson’s motion for further study.

After that meeting, Ralph Greenlee, also a Sundance resident and outspoken member of the community’s home owner association, referred to it as “an ambush,” adding “this shows the hubris and the duplicity of the large landowners in action.”

Greenlee noted that the owners of the larger tracts worked with the Sundance contingent through the initial planning process for nearly three years, but when the “hand of fairness and balance” provided by professional planners was removed they “made up their own rules and the 16 months of treachery and deceit began.”

Still later, Greenlee in a conversation with The Observer, listed the concerns of Sundance residents which, he said, underlay their objections driven by suspicions. One involves whether the advance planning process would be based on achieving consensus among the citizen planners or settling for “consistency” between new planning specifics and the existing initial community plan. While the professional planners advised it was consistency that was required in Phase II, the Sundance residents insisted that their adopted guidelines for the continuing process called for consensus. Without the assurance of consensus, Greenlee indicated, it was the Sundance contingent that feared being overwhelmed.

Another major Sundance concern is development of the large tracts adjacent to the very rural community where horses on their roads, boating on their waterway and wildlife on their five and 10-acre homesites all are prized, reasons residents choose to buy in the community. Developments of massive housing communities with densities of two dwellings to an acre without having any input are threatening to many Sundance citizens, Greenlee said.

 Yet another big worry for Sundance is potential altering of the Urban Services Area, he added. The community was assured that and residents counted on the USA to the north remaining unaltered until 2035. Sundance residents have septic tanks and water wells and want to keep it that way for the foreseeable future as part of a cherished lifestyle, he affirmed. But the second layer of planning, pinning down detail through application of the process known as SmartCodes, anticipates urbanized, walking types of communities and therefore expansion of the USA to allow for municipal water and sewage systems to serve the new urbanized communities. “We’re not urban. We’re rural,” Greenlee asserted. “We want to stay that way a couple of decades more” without the encroachment of little cities right next door.

 As for ejection of the Sundance contingent from the planning process, Greenlee indicated the group is laying low but not laying off. Meetings with county leaders are taking shape, he added, noting that no legitimate planning process can be undertaken when a substantial chunk of the planning area and people actually living in it are excluded from the table. It is, he concluded, a fact recognized in professional circles.

In other words, some sort of mediation aimed at patching up the shaky” marriage” of small and large land holders at least long enough to protect their “progeny,” a workable Phase II plan, yet may be in the offing.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson