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Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee presents strategies

TAMPA - There have been several task forces focused on economic development in Hillsborough County during the past seven years, says Bob Abberger, who has served on most of them. But the work of those past economic development panels will not pack the impact of the recommendations from this year's Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee, said Abberger, one of the committee members and an executive with the real estate investment firm Trammell Crow. "I think this is a pivotal moment in the future growth of the county's economy," Abberger said moments after speaking to county commissioners about the recommendations. "It's the first time we've had a holistic look at what needs to be done here." The committee's final report, nearly 50 pages long and eight months in the making, is divided into two broad strategies: one for comprehensive economic development and the other for streamlining development regulations.
The economic development strategies focus on setting aside land in the county for what are called Economic Development Areas. Those areas would be earmarked for transportation projects, and industrial prospects within those boundaries would receive incentives such as reduced fees and flexible development rules. The areas would be connected to other urban centers by mass transit corridors. The economic areas will help build the county's "brand" as a special place for industrial expansion, Abberger said. "Job creators like the certainty of that," he said. The regulatory provisions of the report were a response to complaints from the development industry about the time and red tape involved in zoning and building applications. The recommendations ranged from creating a "culture of service" in the county's development services department to giving the department's staff discretion to grant waivers and exemptions for some aspects of development applications. The goal of streamlining regulations was a controversial one almost from the committee's inception in the spring. The panel's three environmental members fought attempts to reopen debate on weakening the county's wetlands protections, which developers say are stricter than those in surrounding counties. Commissioner Sandy Murman, who ran the committee, said she was against a drawn-out fight over the wetlands regulations and the matter was dropped. Community activists were incensed by other issues that surfaced at the committee meetings, including reduction or elimination of impact fees that developers pay for transportation improvements around their developments and changes to community plans, which are documents developed by residents as a guide to development in their communities. But the final recommendations did not go as far as feared by the activists. The committee recommended that transportation impact fees eventually be replaced by "mobility fees," which many planners say is a fairer way to make developers pay for the impact their developments have on roads and bridges. Mobility fees are similar to impact fees in many ways but also have differences, including taking into account whether projects encourage shorter trips and more compact development. As for community plans, the committee recommended they be reviewed and changed only where elements hinder economic development. "The idea is to make community plans your friend instead of your enemy," said Tampa development lawyer Ron Weaver, who attended Thursday's meeting. "There will be plenty of public hearings on the effects of those community plans on economic development." Mariella Smith, a Sierra Club representative on the committee, said most of her concerns about the end product were unfounded. She concluded that many committee members had the same concerns as she about preventing further urban sprawl into rural areas and enhancing the county's quality of life. Smith said she was happy that the recommendations, while promoting economic growth, also stress protection of natural resources and promoting sustainable growth.

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