New agriculture land use code amendment in the works

Published on: May 23, 2012


SOUTH COUNTY — Set in motion by a farmer here, an old oversight is prompting a new amendment to Hillsborough’s land use code that may interest other local growers.

The amendment to the land development code is being proposed by Hillsborough Commissioner Al Higginbotham in response to a situation faced by Baltazar and Beatriz Saenz who ran into unexpected obstacles when they wanted to use their acreage in Balm. The land had been made part of a planned development (PD) and a Community Development District (CDD) years ago.

Higginbotham’s amendment would ensure that farmers could continue agricultural operations on land included in a PD until the permitted development is considered feasible and actually is undertaken.

This previously unaddressed specific aspect of the code came to light in April when the Saenz’ were forced to apply for rezoning of approximately five acres they own on the north side of County Road 672, east of U.S. 301, close to the rural community of Balm.

Interested in using the site for agricultural purposes and construction of a family home, the couple learned they could not lawfully do so because the acreage was part of a PD created in 2005 and allowing development of 240 residential lots.

Moreover, a CDD was created to provide monies for whatever infrastructure would be needed when development did occur, according to a rezoning hearing transcript.

While land owners often stipulate in their petitions for PDs that such properties remain in agricultural use even under the PD designation until development becomes more feasible than farming, the consultant or the former owner or owners of the anticipated development site, including the Saenz land, did not do so.

Consequently, the Saenzes had to seek a rezoning of their acreage from PD to AR or agricultural/residential use in order to continue with their plans for their land. Their request for extraction of the five acres from the PD and return to its former agricultural zoning was heard in mid-March, county records disclosed.

Both Hillsborough’s Development Services section and The Planning Commission supported the request and use as consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, noting the five acre parcel could not be subsequently subdivided. Planners also concluded that the remaining portion of the PD could stand independently for development whenever the owner or owners chose to proceed with such use.

And in early April, Steven K. Luce, land use hearing officer, recommended approval of the Saenz rezoning application, noting that their stated use of the acreage is compatible with surrounding uses as well as consistent with the Hillsborough Comprehensive Plan.

But only after cautions were voiced by Jeff Hills, a developer with numerous South County interests, who said he now owns most of the land covered by the 2005 PD. According to the hearing record, Hills entered a formal objection to the rezoning, saying he wanted to ensure the Saenzes were aware of the existing CDD.

It was when the recommended rezoning reached the county commission that Higginbotham recognized the difficulty the Saenzes encountered, including a necessary investment of both time and more than $4,300 in fees to pursue a remedy of the oversight in 2005 that precluded their plans in 2012. His land development code amendment is the result.

The commissioner, who represents commission district IV which encompasses almost all of the South County and substantial agricultural acreage, noted that a number of planned developments once considered imminent have been delayed by a sinking economy not yet recovered. And if the condition allowing continued ag use of land slated for a PD is overlooked, the farming activity is obstructed.

 “It is my hope that our amendment will recognize the value agriculture provides to the vacant parcels.” Higginbotham said, adding that agriculture in the Tampa Bay area in 2010 contributed an estimated $815 million to the local economy.

A draft of the amendment is scheduled for commission review on June 12 when commissioners conduct a regular land use session. If approved at that point, it would be added to the second 2012 plan amendment cycle.

Higginbotham aide Deanna Hurley said a public meeting for interested community leaders on all proposed land use code amendments in the second cycle has been set for July 24. And, the Higginbotham proposal, like all potential amendments, also would go through a series of workshops and public hearings until a final approval on October 25. An approved amendment then would become effective on February 1, 2013.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson