TAMPA - Feelings of disgust and distrust in local government are sky high in the neighborhoods surrounding the Bloomingdale Regional Library in eastern Hillsborough County.
Thousands of residents have signed petitions asking the county commission to block construction of a big-box store on a 43.5-acre parcel next to the library and down the street from Bloomingdale High School.
They are angry because they believe commissioners and county planners connived to allow changes to the county's rule book for how land is developed. The changes made it easier to build the 158,800-square-foot store on the property.
One reason for the suspicions: Changes in the land development code are usually initiated by the county planning staff, not by a private developer, as was the case with the Bloomingdale project.
What's more, unlike a rezoning, changes in the land development code don't require public notification. Few people showed up at the September and December 2011 meetings where the changes were approved by a 6-1 commission vote.
"Notification would have killed it, so they went to word-changing and got it passed through the commission," said Maurice Cecchini, a member of the group opposing the development, which calls itself CAN-DO for Coordinated Active Neighborhoods for Development Organization.
Cecchini said that, in passing the changes, the commissioners "either were deaf, dumb and blind, or they thought nobody was paying attention."
Members of CAN-DO have flooded community meetings, waved "No Big Box" signs on busy Bloomingdale Avenue, and lambasted county commissioners via emails and phone calls. They say the big box store, likely a Super Wal-Mart, will funnel thousands of additional car trips onto Bloomingdale Avenue, a four-lane street already rated "D" by the county because it can't handle existing traffic.
The increased traffic will raise the danger level for students attending nearby Bloomingdale High School and Alafia Elementary, critics say, and intrude on peaceful residential neighborhoods.
When the opposition movement first emerged in April, commissioners replied that none of them but Chairman Ken Hagan had been on the board in 2003 when the land was rezoned to the designation Traditional Neighborhood Development. This zoning allowed a big box store but the requirements would have made it a tough fit.
Eight years later, however, when all the current commissioners were on the board, Redstone decided it wanted changes on the property.
The route the company chose was a change to the land development code. Commissioners now say they thought the change was a good idea because it would encourage developments that mixed commercial and residential development in walkable communities.
"It's what they desperately need in Brandon: residential, commercial, retail all in the same area," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said in an interview last week. "That's what mixed-use development was for."
Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who represents the Bloomingdale area, made the motion to approve the land-code change. Higginbotham said he thought the developers were going to model their project on Winthrop Town Centre, a mixed-use development off Providence Road south of Bloomingdale Avenue. Winthrop features a walkable shopping area with trees and shops with decorative facades.
"Based on the presentations, based on what the staff gave to us, it was going to be a Winthrop-type development.," Higginbotham said.
But transcripts of the meetings the commissioners held on the land development code amendment in September and December show several speakers tried to warn them that the changes sought by Redstone would make it easier to build a big box store on the property.
The changes had to do with traffic, parking and the amount of commercial space allowed in the development. Redstone wanted fewer streets connecting with adjoining neighborhoods.
The company also wanted up to 90 percent of the streets in the development to be "B" streets, which are reserved for more auto-dependent uses, such as regional malls, warehouses and ground parking lots. The traditional neighborhood zoning called for a maximum of 10 percent B streets.
And finally, the company wanted the maximum commercial use space increased from 50 percent to 80 percent of the site.
"I think it's entirely possible the applicant will be able to squeeze a regional mall or discount warehouse store, drive-through bank, gas station with auto repair and a cell tower all on the allowable commercial portion of this site," Brandon resident Vivian Bacca told the commission at the Dec. 15, 2011, meeting.
"The square footage allowed is approximately the same size as a big box store," Robert Coats said at the same meeting. "By getting rid of the street requirements ... they can now build a parking lot that goes along with this big box store."
Transcripts also show the county planning staff was opposed to many of the changes and told the commission so at the Sept. 15 meeting. Planning official Tom Hiznay told commissioners the changes taken together "would do away with many of the special design requirements found in the TND code and allow development of projects much closer to the conventional suburban design pattern," the type of development Sharpe said he wanted to see less often.
But at the end of the September meeting, Sharpe asked the planning staff to continue to work with Redstone to find solutions so the development would work. When the planners reported back at the December meeting, they had changed their minds and agreed with Redstone that changes were needed in the Traditional Neighborhood Development zoning.
Redstone officials said they were not involved in this 2003 rezoning decision, and found that the designation restricted their flexibility. That's why they pressed to create a special category of Traditional Neighborhood Development for smaller parcels, under 50 acres, and to call it a mixed-use development. The county approved this plan to the land development code.
"Some of the concepts of a TND could not be compressed into a small site," Thomas Hand, senior vice president of Redstone, said Friday. "We worked closely with the county to keep the basics of a TND and make it work within a smaller site ... pedestrian friendly, certain design restrictions, something that is probably a little more restrictive than a general commercial zoning."
Redstone managing partner Jonathan Levy stressed that the original Traditional Neighborhood Development zoning never precluded a big-box store. Asked whether the changes they got in the land development code made it easier to put the store on the site, Hand answered, "It was for all components of the site."
The developers say the project area will be lush with greenery and many of the grand oaks now on the property will remain. Fountains will spout water from two large ponds between the big store and out parcels on Bloomingdale Avenue. And the required 30-foot-wide buffer at the back of the property will be increased to 50 feet.
Commercial space will total between 180,000 and 200,000 square feet, the developer said, though the zoning code allows 300,000 square feet. The development will also include 260 apartments, which will abut an existing residential area, Levy said. [email protected]