BRANDON - A torrential downpour couldn't keep nearly 400 area residents from coming out to give Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham a piece of their mind Monday night.
Higginbotham met with area residents who oppose the construction of a big box retail store next to Bloomingdale Regional Library.
"We're not against all development," said Dan Grant, member of the Coordinated Active Neighborhoods for Development Organization (CAN DO). "We're against this particular piece of development on this particular land and in this manner." Grant was one of many CAN DO members who wore neon green or pink T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Say No to the Big Box."
The group had wanted to meet with Higginbotham at Bloomingdale High School, which is less than a mile away from the proposed site. Higginbotham instead booked the Brandon Recreation Center and the humid meeting room turned out to be an appropriate setting to discuss what has become a heated, uncomfortable subject.
"I'm not leaving until we're finished," Higginbotham said during his introductory remarks before loosening his tie and settling in for a long evening. The meeting was scheduled to take place between 6 and 8 p.m., but Higginbotham was still talking with residents after 9 p.m.
County attorney Adam Gormley stepped up to the microphone first and told residents the project is in the site development process. The country approved zoning for the 43.5-acre site in 2003. A land-use code amendment in 2011 changing it from a traditional neighborhood development to a mixed-use development allowed for the construction of a big box store - which is rumored to be a Super Wal-Mart - and an apartment complex.
Higginbotham said he felt mislead by an artist's rendering presented by Redstone Development in 2011 that more closely resembled the pedestrian-friendly Winthrop Town Centre, less than five miles away from the proposed site on Bloomingdale Avenue. Toward the end of the meeting, Higginbotham said he didn't know if there was a legal basis to deny the project based on the inaccurate artist rendering.
The commissioner acknowledged accepting donations from Redstone during the previous campaign cycle, but not his current run for the at-large seat being vacated by Mark Sharpe in 2014.
He characterized himself as a "messenger" of bad news.
Those in attendance weren't willing to let him off the hook so easily.
"You are not just the messenger, you're an approver," said George Niemann, CAN DO organizer. "Don't play dumb; accept responsibility."
Each speaker had three minutes to address Higginbotham, who sat a few feet from the microphone, taking notes.
Many stuck to prepared talking points that largely focused on safety issues, including increased traffic at the already congested Bloomingdale Avenue/Lithia-Pinecrest Road intersection and the addition of a business that will sell alcohol and firearms in close proximity to a high school.
"Hillsborough County is building a fire station half a mile from the proposed site," said Dee Bristol, one of 48 residents who signed up to speak during the meeting. "They're going to responding to emergencies on a failing road going both ways."
Others made more personal pleas against the project.
Diane Sandow has lived on Little Oak Street, located across from the proposed site, since 1989.
"I really feel betrayed," Sandow said. "Who is looking out for me, my family and my investment?"
When the public comment period ended, Higginbotham said he cannot act until he sees the developer's final plan.
"I have to deal with facts, and the facts that I have right now don't give me anything to say it's Walmart," Higginbotham said. "Common sense says it's leaning that way, but I don't have anything in writing."
Site plans from the developer are due in late August, according to the commissioner. Failure to submit site plans by then means the developer would have to begin the approval process again.
Higginbotham also added he had a meeting with a Redstone representative scheduled for Tuesday.
Niemann was generally disappointed in the way Higginbotham responded to the community's questions.
"He didn't so much answer the questions as he 'took them under advisement,'" said Niemann, who was encouraged by the meeting's turnout. "We've got to keep this momentum going."