One of the worst ideas in a long time in the field of urban planning received a blessing this month when the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved a land-use change for a project that calls for filling three acres of water inside a basin for a new townhouse development. The decision was based on a flimsy concoction of what-if’s and maybe’s, without any appreciation for aesthetics or the big environmental picture, much less the message this vote would send to anyone who sees the water as an open canvas. The Tampa City Council should reject the proposal when it comes for consideration next month.
A New York developer has plans to fill three acres of an 8.8-acre lagoon called the North Rocky Point Basin on the Tampa side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, just west of Tampa International Airport. The site is privately owned and underwater, and developers want to change its land use category to permit residential development. Plans call for 16 townhomes there, each about three stories high and with a private dock.
The planning commission voted 6-3 to find the proposed land use change consistent with Tampa’s Comprehensive Plan, a long-range document that serves as a guide for how Tampa should develop. The vote followed an intense debate among planning commissioners, neighbors and others over what opponents said was a precedent-setting decision that would harm environmental resources in Upper Tampa Bay and steer more residents into a coastal flood zone.
Planning staff said the man-made lagoon had already been altered since the 1920s, and that it was not located within an area of sea grass or area identified as a significant wildlife habitat. It found the project consistent with Tampa’s goal of enhancing the waterfront and with promoting residential development in the West Shore business district. The staff also pointed out that under existing entitlements, up to 170 residential units could be added to the area. So how could only 16 townhomes be burdensome?
"There’s not policy direction that clearly states in the comp plan that water should not have a land use," a planning staffer said, adding that commission staff didn’t want to pick winners and losers.
The commission’s decision turned common sense on its head. The question isn’t how many homes might be allowed under the most generous terms in this area, but whether this project is appropriate. The staff determination that this project meets local plans for water uses seems overly forgiving. The site is located within a coastal high hazard area, where the city has a stake in restricting population growth. While supporters say a retention pond and other water quality improvements (such as adding a living shoreline) could improve the habitat of the basin were the project approved, the city could look to make those improvements without trading away the basin. Horse trading is one thing, planning is another.
Any developer has the right to try to maximize the value of his property. But the city council, which is scheduled to consider the proposal June 28, should take a more holistic view of how filling the lagoon for residential development would impact the city’s vision for its future growth and quality of life. City staff was right to object to the request; it cited concerns over the scale of development in the basin, traffic flow and having new residents in a high–hazard flood zone. Staff said the request "is not in the best interest of this area."
The council’s consideration is only one stop in the regulatory process. Separate permits are required through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the local water management district, and the project is subject to review by the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, which regulates environmental matters in both the county and city. But the council should have enough to realize that this project takes planning in the wrong direction.