For decades, politicians and planners decided any empty land in south Hillsborough County would be the perfect spot for landfills and to dig big holes. Those humongous holes are better known as borrow pits, but that name always seemed weird to me.
I mean, if builders are just borrowing the dirt they dig from here for other projects, why don’t they bring it back? But no, they just dig the hole and move the earth to somewhere else in the county. The dirt goes, but the hole stays.
While turning the home front into something resembling the surface of the moon wouldn’t go over well anywhere, it particularly rankles the good people of Balm – a patch of unincorporated largely green space just off U.S. 301, south of Riverview.
“You know what we say down here? If the county doesn’t want something, put it in Balm.”
The speaker is Danny Dixon, retired from working 40 years for the phone company, and Balm is his home. He likes it so much he bought some of the lots around his house in case anyone had a hankering to move in a little too close to him.
Danny took me and Tampa Tribune colleague Yvette Hammett on a special tour of Balm – which doesn’t take long, by the way – because something strange is happening there, even by their standards. You see, this land that has been hidden away so long like the uncle you don’t invite to the family picnic, is being discovered.
As Danny drove us up Balm-Riverview Road and other hot spots, we couldn’t help but notice all the construction for several major housing projects. Fields where cantaloupes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, grape tomatoes and cucumbers are grown could soon give way to the ever-reaching sprawl of people in search of the suburban lifestyle.
In other words, the very thing people in Balm try to avoid.
Holes are bad. Landfills are worse.
“Does anybody like eating?” Danny said with more than a trace of disgust at the transformation.
If you drive down C.R. 672, you’ll see a giant grassy glob of earth Danny cleverly calls Mount Balm. It’s a landfill for construction debris, and it’s huge. Construction on one of the planned communities is taking place essentially in the shadow of Mount Balm.
Across the road from there, you’ll find the abandoned Hillsborough Correctional Institution, which was closed by budget cuts. There are long-range plans for a middle and elementary school in plain sight of the barbed wire. If that wasn’t weird enough, a sign right on the site of the proposed school cautions that the land was been treated with effluent water.
“It might be OK now, but during the rainy season it really puts out an odor,” Danny said.
Oh, and while all these developments and projects could bring thousands of new residents flocking to beautiful Balm, there are not enough road projects planned to handle the potential influx of cars.
Gridlock? Long lines of traffic waiting forever at stoplights? Vanishing vegetable fields?
In Florida, they call that normal. In Balm, well, Danny put it best.
“Sometimes I don’t understand our state,” he said.