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Mariella Smith calls on colleagues to rescind ‘reckless process’ vote on growth management

Smith felt “ambushed” by a surprise plan.

There’s a rift between Hillsborough County Commissioners over a recent vote approving a set of “guiding principles” for future growth management in the county. 

During a Hillsborough County Commission land use workshop last week, County Administrator Mike Merrill handed out a three-page document to each member present outlining goals for how the city should move forward with future development and economic growth as well as plan for better transportation and workforce housing. 

Commissioners approved the plan 4-3 with Stacy White, Sandra Murman, Ken Hagan and Les Miller voting in favor and Mariella Smith, Pat Kemp and Kimberly Overman voting against it.

Now Smith wants the board to rescind the vote during a full County Commission meeting Wednesday.

“I feel ambushed,” Smith said during last week’s meeting.

Smith, as well as the rest of the board, did not receive the document in advance of the meeting, which meant they had little to no time to review it or ask questions of staff before taking it to a public forum. 

Further, Hillsborough County Commissioners aren’t supposed to take action during workshop meetings where no public comment is taken.

However, board members can ask their colleagues to waive the rules to make a motion, a request that is often obliged as a professional courtesy. That’s what happened Thursday when White moved to approve the three-page document.

“I will certainly be more careful about extending that courtesy now,” Smith said. 

The document in question is vague, but it covers a sweeping variety of issues the county is and will continue to face in the future.

It’s aimed at ensuring long-term financial sustainability, growing responsibly, meeting essential service needs for residents and delivering “an agreed-upon quality of life.”

To do that the document calls for the county to include agricultural preservation but also provide choice to property owners to have the ability to transfer development rights of their property.

It also recommends preserving heritage lands, creating urban scale development that attracts innovation, creating economic development zones in natural “nodes” like the Interstate 4 and Highway 60 corridors, requiring developers to cover the cost of all infrastructure and service needs in areas outside the urban service area and encouraging workforce housing and transit choices. 

“A lot of this document has some good stuff,” Smith noted in an interview with Florida Politics referring to things like increasing transit options and placing the fiscal burden of new infrastructure on developers building in suburban or rural areas.

But Smith is worried the guiding document is a tool that could be used to encourage rampant growth in the county and continued urban sprawl that makes the county’s already tough transportation challenges even worse. 

“This could be used to develop thousands of acres of rural land,” she said. “Reckless process will bring reckless development,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post asking constituents to speak against the board’s move last week.

The document also mentions “sector planning.” County staff described such a tool as a way to manage growth and development based on an area’s needs in a data-driven approach that’s specific community-to-community. 

However, Smith argues it’s more commonly used by developers to create large-scale projects on rural lands that encourage urban sprawl.

While Smith is calling on the board to overturn Thursday’s vote, she’s also hoping to have a robust conversation about the county’s process. She has a problem with action being taken on short notice with no opportunity for public discourse. 

“It’s as if [Mike Merrill] scribbled this out over lunch and then just handed it to us,” Smith said. 

She has reason to feel that way. Lucia Garsys, the county’s chief administrator of development and infrastructure, told commissioners angry they didn’t have more time to consider the document that it had not been ready the day before Thursday’s meeting.

In fact, when pressed further by Kemp, Garsys said the document had not even been ready at 11 a.m. the day of the meeting. The meeting started at 1:30.

During Thursday’s meeting Kemp raised the specter that there was an agenda at play for pushing the document through with little discourse. 

“I feel like there’s been a prearranged agreement with pushing this forward,” Kemp said.

Smith felt similarly. She asked White after he made a motion to approve the document, if he had been working on it. White said he hadn’t, but admitted the document contained ideas he had been supporting and talking about for years.  

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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