RUSKIN — Nobody seems concerned that an apparent slip-up by Hillsborough County officials might lead to construction of a chemical plant or a tannery in downtown Ruskin.
What does worry some community activists, though, is that the bungle leaves Ruskin without the rules they hammered out restricting what type of housing can be built in certain parts of town — an important piece of the community vision they worked two years to create.
Eight years ago, those activists, developers’ representatives and large landowners spent hours over several weeks debating a set of rules for the Ruskin Community Plan to guide development in four areas of the community.
They determined where developers can build townhouses and other multi-family projects, which areas would remain more rural and which would retain historic home lot sizes. All parties were assured by county planners that the guidelines would be presented for inclusion in the comprehensive plan for unincorporated Hillsborough County.
The comprehensive plan is what gives the rules teeth.
It appears, though, as if that never happened. Hillsborough County land-use attorney Adam Gormly said he discovered recently that the rule chart never made it into the comprehensive plan. Still, he says, for the past eight years developers have been voluntarily complying with the rules anyway.
Community activist Mariella Smith, who helped orchestrate the creation of the Ruskin Community Plan, is incensed over Gormly’s revelation. She says it’s laughable that a long list of developers would voluntarily comply with rules restricting what and where they can build.
She said she and others plan to meet this week with county commissioners to determine how the mistake happened and what can be done to fix it.
“We got assurance these rules were being included in the comprehensive plan and legally adopted,” Smith said. “We negotiated away certain things to find a middle ground. Now the county attorney is feeding it into the shredder.”
Smith has a copy of emails from County Planner John Healey, written in 2005, and former County Planner Joe Incorvia assuring her the chart with lot sizes and densities would be included in the comprehensive plan.
“This was a key component of our community plan, and we would never have signed off on the finished product without it,” Smith said. “This was not a community wish list. It is land-use zoning criteria.”
Land-use attorney Mike Peterson was at the table when the guidelines were debated and finalized. He said he, too, was perplexed when he heard Gormly’s revelation.
“That does surprise me given I and others pursued rezonings subject to those agreed densities and lot sizes,” Peterson said in an email. “We recognized staff’s enforcement of those provisions since it was the ‘grand bargain’ designed to offer certainty for both the developers and existing neighborhoods. We faced no opposition as long as our proposals met the plan’s criteria.
Healey, who represented the county when the plan was hammered out, referred questions on the matter to Gormly. He did say it was the county staff’s intent to include the guidelines in the comprehensive plan.
The slip-up could stand as a bad precedent, said Barbara and Tom Aderhold, who helped developed the community plan for Keystone — among the first of 23 community plans developed in the county.
“Community plans are about designing your community as you want to see it,” Barbara Aderhold said. Every part, she said, is essential.
Smith said she believes Gormly has simply made a decision not to enforce the regulations.
“It’s a huge ramification, countywide, if the county attorney can arbitrarily change policy on how rezoning is reviewed in relation to the comprehensive plan, without public input.”
But Gormly said there is no change in policy, just the realization that the document was never approved to become part of the comprehensive plan.
Gormly said he has no idea why the rule chart was not put in to the county’s larger plan or if there was an intent to include it or leave it out.
“I’m not in a position to say whose fault it is,” he said. “I’m not in a position to answer that. It wasn’t adopted.”