A group of residents and business people are questioning the possibility of changing land previously designated for protection under the ELAPP program to a use that permits operation of a business — even a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization like the YMCA.
The Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program was begun in 1987 after a referendum of voters approved a .25 mil tax for the purpose of “buying, preserving and restoring sensitive lands” at a time when South County development had begun to boom.
Since then many lands have been purchased or donated, such as the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve and the Wolf Branch Creek Preserve, and are periodically aided by groups of volunteers who clean them up in an attempt to preserve habitat and wild space.
Now the YMCA has performed a “needs study” that involves building a facility that could be as large as 30,000-square-feet on a portion of land currently in the ELAPP program.
Some residents fear granting permission for this may set a precedent that could affect other ELAPP lands. The Planning Commission has questions too.
“What if this leads to other protected land designations being changed?” asked Logan Sultenfuss, co-owner of the Apollo Beach Racquet and Fitness Club and Apollo’s Bistro.
A meeting attended by local residents was held at the Bistro recently and many questions were asked, prompting Sultenfuss and others to gather county records to see if any of the county’s ELAPP lands had ever been reassigned to other land uses.
Kurt Gremley, ELAPP Acquisition Manager for the Hillsborough County Real Estate Services Department, explained the clause in the ELAPP documents that allows for such a transaction.
It is called the “Acquisition of Convenience” clause and refers to land purchased under ELAPP that is not deemed preservation land at the time of purchase but must be purchased in order to acquire some preservation land.
Usually this is demanded by the landowner.
“If an ELAPP land has a designation of ‘acquisition of convenience’ at the time it is purchased, prior to its conveyance to the county, then later it can be considered for uses other than natural preservation lands,” Gremley stated. “But if the land is deemed preservation land when purchased, it can never be changed to ‘acquisition of convenience.’ We have always maintained the integrity of the program.”
The “Acquisition of Convenience” clause is included in the Sept. 21, 1994 resolution made by the Commissioners to approve the 177-acre purchase of which 58 acres were separated from the rest of the lands by the building of Interstate 75.
Of these 58 acres, only a portion is being considered for lease to the YMCA.
“This is a textbook case for ‘acquisition of convenience,’” Gremley said. “The owner refused to sell the preserve unless the county also purchased this land, which was not a part of the original approved ELAPP preservation site.”
The ELAPP General Committee, comprised of volunteers, had no objection to the request that this land be redesignated, provided that ELAPP was reimbursed for the cost of that portion of the land.
According to the Feb. 22, 2012 County Commission agenda, the Commission authorized the director of real estate services to sign the land use amendment application made by the YMCA. For this ELAPP would be reimbursed $97,560.
Gremley says it is a “lease.”
Some residents say if the county is reimbursed, it is a sale.
The Planning Commission has so many questions about this transaction, two meetings have been scheduled.
According to Melissa Zornitta, planning group leader, Gremley will make a presentation and answer questions at the regular Planning Commission Board Meeting May 14 at 2 p.m. Residents may attend.
Then, that same day at 5:30 p.m, there will be a public hearing on the matter at which time the Planning Commission will vote upon whether to approve this measure to be drafted and presented to the County Commission.
If the Planning Commission approves on May 14, the Commissioners will vote June 7 at 6 p.m. This meeting is also open to the public for comment.
Land use maps show that the county once considered a portion of this property to be used as a county park because it is adjacent to the Vance Vogel Park on Bullfrog Creek Road in Gibsonton.
County maps show it is just west of Interstate 75 and also borders Big Bend Road.
Resident Bruce Davis, owner of Flip Flops and Fitness in Apollo Beach is concerned with traffic flow in that area.
“There is so much scheduled to be built on the Big Bend corridor,” Davis said. “Between the mall, the hospital, and all the other things going in if there is any buildable land at that point I should think the county would be planning for DOT to put a cloverleaf there to minimize congestion at the entrance and exits of I-75. People talk about not wanting to drive to Brandon but it looks like Brandon traffic is being brought to us.”
“I would suggest if any residents are concerned that they contact the Planning Commission and our County Commissioners before they vote,” Sultenfuss said.
Sultenfuss said that although in the beginning small business owners of fitness, childcare facilities and special activities were concerned with the building of a YMCA right on the interstate because it would get so much exposure and perhaps drown out existing businesses- plus get county help for free due to their nonprofit status that private businesses have to pay for- once they began to investigate county paperwork their concerns became much deeper.
“Is this even permitted?” Sultenfuss asked. “Or is it a way of getting more money for the county? After all, if the land was used for a county park, I would use it with my kids (in the after school program at his business). But if ELAPP has to be reimbursed- then the county would be paying the county. Obviously they don’t want to have to do that.”