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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Brandon big-box plan stirs debate on road funding

BRANDON — Some commuters on crowded Bloomingdale Avenue, struggling to make it to work on time or home for dinner, say they aren’t necessarily worried about what’s happening at an intersection almost three miles away.

So when government officials recently suggested spending money contributed by the developer of a proposed big-box store in the area for improvements to the distant intersection, many neighborhood residents roared.

For years, people from Ruskin to Lutz have accused Hillsborough County of diverting developers’ road “impact fees” to projects that do little to alleviate additional traffic caused by the developments.

County officials, however, say there is method to such decisions. The county is broken into 10 geographical “zones,” and money contributed by developers for projects within each area can be spent for road improvements anywhere within that zone.

The money is allocated based on priority, said Mike Williams, engineering and environmental division director for Public Works.

When the matter came up at a recent public meeting, county Public Works director John Lyons said he initially had recommended using a $564,000 road impact fee from Red Cast LLC, the developer of the proposed big-box store, for construction at Lithia-Pinecrest and Lumsden roads, nearly three miles from the project.

But the county commission directed Lyons to get area residents’ thoughts. He followed up with the public meeting in the Brandon area, and plans another one in coming weeks.

In addition to the work at Lithia-Pinecrest and Lumsden, Lyons said, the county is improving roads closer to the proposed store and an adjacent apartment complex. Money is allocated to upgrade the intersections of Bloomingdale Avenue and Culbreath Road, and Bloomingdale and Bell Shoals Road.

Lyons said he also plans to update a traffic study in the area to ensure nothing has changed since a previous one was done six years ago.

And, in addition to its road impact fee, Red Cast must build turn lanes in and out of its project, Lyons said.

The closest capital road improvement project to the big-box development site is the Lithia-Pinecrest and Lumsden intersection, where the county wants to spend about $13 million to add turn and through lanes to improve traffic flow. That fund is shy about $1.5 million, Lyons said.

But the county’s reasoning for possibly using Red Cast’s money there doesn’t appease some residents.

“I was really shocked when they gave an explanation of how they do it,” said Fred Brown, a member of CAN-DO, or Coordinated Active Neighborhoods for Development Organization. CAN-DO has sued the county about rule changes that allow construction of a warehouse-type store in the area. That lawsuit is pending.

“If there is a project that is under-funded, they will take the money and put it on that project,” Brown said. While $564,000 is a drop in the bucket when it comes to road construction, he said, it still should be used near the site of the big-box project.

“The big story here is that this has been going on for years,” said community activist Terry Flott, director of U-CAN, or United Citizens Action Network of Hillsborough County.

“This is not unusual, robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Flott said. “The people that have been impacted by a development have no say-so in it. They are constantly shifting money around.”

“Diverting money destroys neighborhoods,” said George Niemann, another member of U-CAN. “It defeats the purpose of what an impact fee is supposed to be. They get money from a particular development and the public thinks they are fixing it, but they move the money elsewhere.”

“It’s a perception issue in whether the county uses the money where the impact occurs,” Lyons said. In this case, he said, county officials have determined the effect of the store and apartments has about a three-mile radius.

Five people talking about the same project often will come up with five different places the money should be used, Lyons said.

Still, Mike White, with the Lutz Citizens Coalition, said the money developers contribute should be kept “project-specific.” His community is working with the county and the developers of a large shopping plaza that will affect Van Dyke Road, a narrow two-lane artery, he said. And he hopes the money is used right there, he said.

“I’m not sure where all this impact fee money does go,” White said, “and I’m not sure many others understand it, either.”

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