It seemed too good to be true. And it was. Less than three months after endorsing the wisdom of managed growth, Hillsborough County commissioners approved a land-use change clearing the way for new residential sprawl in east county. It was only the latest example of how policymakers in Hillsborough are undermining the county’s budget picture and quality of life with a hackneyed approach to growth that is out of step with orderly planning and common sense.
The case at hand may be dry as dust, but it illustrates how the county continues to work against itself as Hillsborough struggles to find more money for schools, transportation and other critical needs in a county that 600,000 more people will call home by 2040, bringing its population to nearly 2 million. Commissioners voted 5-2 to allow 131 new homes on 164 acres of rural property off Lithia Pinecrest Road, just east of the major community known as FishHawk Ranch. The property owner said he bought the land as an investment and hadn’t been made aware the county lowered the allowable number of homes on the site over time.
Several commissioners who bought into the fantasy of this being a hardship case didn’t bother to substantiate their theories for the record. After all, the government modifies land uses all the time. The county did nothing wrong nor concealed the changes taking place. And it’s not the government’s job to ensure that land speculators make a profit. The county’s professional planning staff recommended the application for the new development be denied, calling it "inconsistent" with long-range growth plans. County staff and the public raised concerns over traffic, schools and public safety, impacts to wetlands and wildlife, — and the burden of future public infrastructure. The area is not served by the county’s mass transit agency. Its roads have no marked bike lanes, and there are only plans for sidewalks. Yet the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, political appointees named by the local governments, overruled the staff, clearing the way for the decision last week that allows a fourfold increase in residential housing on what’s now pasture.
Commissioners are fooling themselves but not the public by describing their action as righting a wrong. At least Commissioner Ken Hagan had the honesty to explain his vote by declaring that more homes were appropriate "given the dense development in the neighboring property to the west." In other words, sprawl is fine because sprawl is already there, so let’s keep going. The two commissioners who voted no, liberal Democrat Pat Kemp and conservative Republican Stacy White, showed by rejecting this line of thinking that the issue is about smart policy, not partisan politics.
It’s also the complete opposite message from what the Urban Land Institute hoped to send after its meeting with the commission in December. The ULI urged the commission to act now to guide growth by holding a line on its Urban Service Area, where most roads, utilities and other infrastructure is already located, while developing new live-work-play clusters to serve hordes of new residents. Several commissioners who embraced that message only months ago reversed course with their votes last week. Why did the county bother paying ULI $135,000?
Defenders are quick to point out that the commission’s vote does not expand the county’s urban service boundary. But it has a similar effect by extending these public services into rural areas that had been walled off from suburban encroachment. These decisions will change only when voters make sprawl more of a political issue, and once they connect the value of rural lands to the local ecosystem and to the county’s quality of life.