Hillsborough County Commissioners, sitting as the land-use hearing board, approved a zoning application for development of a RaceTrac gas station and convenience store in Brandon, on 2.5 acres of wetlands at the corner of Lumsden Road and Kings Avenue.
That was the easy part.
The hard part is yet to come, when the commissioners, reconvened as the Environmental Protection Commission, will again take up the development application, this time to decide if wetlands impacts should, or should not be, denied.
"If you cannot impact the wetlands you cannot develop the property," acknowledged Vin Marchetti, the attorney for both the property owners and RaceTrac, which wants to develop the property.
Confused? You should be.
"To say this has become a confusing matter is an understatement," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, at the April 9 land-use hearing.
That's because the 7-member Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners wear several hats. In this instance, they convene also as the land-use hearing board (to address zoning issues) and as the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC).
Adam Gormley, who as assistant county attorney handles land-use and zoning cases, instructed the board very carefully to "keep the records clean" — meaning that as one body they can address only the applicable zoning issues and as the other, to consider the wetlands issue.
It is what Marchetti asked for in December, when the commissioners, sitting as the land-use hearing board, agreed to remand the issue so that it could be addressed as two separate applications.
As for the vote itself, to approve the zoning application, commissioners Les Miller (District 3) and Mark Sharpe (District 7) voted against. Commissioner Sandy Murman (District 1) approved the motion. Commissioners Ken Hagan (District 5), Kevin Beckner (District 6), Al Higginbotham (District 4) and Victor Crist (District 2) voted approval as well, but with caution that their votes might not be the same when it came to the wetlands issue.
"To not support this [the zoning application] today would be inconsistent," Higginbotham said. "I don't think this will eventually make it through when we get to the wetlands stage."
Murman voted in favor of the measure, and appears poised to do so as well on environmental concerns, "going back to those really tough decisions we have to make about our economic development," she said, noting the addition of 40 jobs and "increasing our property tax bill from $300 to $100,000 a year."
Crist said he wrestles with decisions like this in these difficult economic times, when the county needs to "move forward for the sake of keeping people employed and stimulating our economy." But, he added, while he was willing to approve the zoning application, "I retain my vote, which could be different in the EPC portion of this."
Calling it an "extremely interesting and challenging case," Hagan said "do not assume my decision today will be same when we get back to the wetlands issue."
Before approving the zoning application April 9, some board members questioned why they should have to address the wetlands issue separately.
"It seems to me we're putting the cart before the horse on this issue," said Miller, who added that the two issues should be considered together.
"I think we should continue this until we hear from the EPC," Sharpe said.
Commissioner Beckner offered that the board could vote first as the land-use hearing board, then adjourn and reconvene to consider the wetlands issue.
A motion to that effect failed, however, failed, with the votes of commissioners Hagan, Murman, Higginbotham and Crist.
The RaceTrac development is bitterly opposed by a group of community activists, who periodically have been sporting "Deny 12-0263" signs in protest of the project in front of the wetlands they are determined to protect.
"Deny 12-0263" refers to the RaceTrac Petroleum Inc. application number.
They take issue with Marchetti's move to "splinter" the rulings necessary to move this project forward. Also, that the commissioners are revisiting a 2002 agreement that allowed for the development of the 55-acre spot at the corner of Kings Avenue and Lumsden Road — but minus the 2.5 acres of wetlands now in question again.
The property owners and developers "got something that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to get without an approval saying they couldn't impact the wetlands," said Terry Flott, of the United Citizens Action Network, after the April 9 land-use hearing. "Now, that's being revisited. There's cases waiting to see how this turns out. It really is a countywide issue. It changes the way we protect our wetlands."
Activist Edith Stewart, a retired county employee, said as much at the corner April 5, where activists held signs in protest of the RaceTrac development.
"This is bigger than this piece of property," she said at the time. "I see it as a litmus test of the wetlands rule. If this corner goes, the next corner goes and all the wetlands will follow."
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Dennis Carlton spoke in favor the RaceTrac development, identifying himself as an equity partner in a deal involving also Bob McLane, then chair of the board of the Valrico Bank. McCullough and Scott closed on the executive park. "We kept the corner, which we considered the crown jewel," Carlton said. "I would ask that you approve this and I'm thankful that the zoning hearing master was as forceful as he was in his recommendation."
Steve Griffin spoke about the finding of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, which found the development inconsistent with the county's comprehensive plan. While the project does "meet criteria for consideration of commercial uses," it falls short on environmental concerns, including those noted in the Brandon Community Plan.
Marchetti at the April 9 hearing stressed that the property met locational criteria for zoning, including that the project does not abut residential land uses, that it is an ideal residential-to-commercial transition and that the neighbors most directly affected are in agreement with the RaceTrac proposal.
Indeed, Sue Luther, vice president of the adjacent Lumsden Executive Park, said all 18 building owners, and "several more tenants," are in support of the project because it will bring much-needed security to the area.
"We do have a lot of vagrancy issues in that area," she said, adding that the protection that comes with RaceTrac's 24-hour operation, 17 security cameras and "numerous lights" will be greatly appreciated.
"Second is the visibility. It's very hard to see us. It's a big corner of nothing. Having the visibility of the RaceTrac [development]" will aid the office park as well, she said.
Opposed was Pamela Jo Hatley, of the Oak Park Homeowners Association, who called the process "procedurally muddled" and the proposed development not consistent with the comprehensive plan.
"Development should not be promoted, and in fact discouraged, in wetlands," she said.
John Knightly works for the Advanced Petroleum and Energy Company (APEC). He represents Mobil in APEC locally. He said Mobil at one time wanted to put a station where RaceTrac wants to build but backed off when it was determined the land was a wetlands conservation area. Subsequently, the land was bought across the street, where a Mobil station stands today.
A RaceTrac representative at the April 9 hearing said the company "is a third generation family owned business" and that it will fill 40 jobs locally and represent a more than $5 million "instant economic impact to the community."
Noted Knightly: "Whatever jobs you're going to gain, you're going to lose at mom-and-pop operations."
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