A developer with a history of run-ins with Hillsborough County officials has filed a federal lawsuit against the county claiming it violated his constitutional rights through its land-use decisions.
Stephen Dibbs says in the lawsuit that county officials treated him differently than other property owners because he petitioned for “more reasonable and sensible regulations.” The county’s arbitrary treatment hurt his business, Dibbs said, and caused him to lose money.
“Dibbs’ often-expressed viewpoint and regular petitioning for changes to rules and regulations has been ill-received by the county,” the lawsuit said. “Over time, the county began to take many actions adverse to Dibbs, even when such actions were not justified by law.”
The lawsuit also asks that the court declare the county’s 21 community plans violate the due process guarantees of the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The plans, which are part of the county’s comprehensive growth plan, are supposed to reflect residents’ vision of how their communities should develop.
Dibbs says community plans place restrictions on property use which have no basis in “public health, safety or welfare.” He also alleges some communities use the plans as exclusionary zoning to keep out “undesirable” groups, such as poor people and minorities.
“I believe the community plans are unconstitutional and they violate state and federal law,” Dibbs said.
County commissioners have for the most part supported community plans, saying they give citizens a voice in how their neighborhoods evolve. The plans are fashioned during months, and in some cases years, of meetings between residents and county planners.
But Dibbs contends the plans are driven by a small group of activists in league with planners who want growth tightly regulated. The planners, Dibbs says, give false information about demographics, population and economics in the target communities to county commissioners, who must approve the plans.
“Wouldn’t you expect your government to give decision-makers the facts that are not distorted, made-up data?” Dibbs said. “They come up with numbers that are fantasy.”
Dibbs’ antipathy to community plans goes back to 1998 when the Keystone-Odessa plan was being developed. Dibbs planned on buying 21.6 acres known as the Lake LeClare property at Wilcox and Lakeshore roads and he wanted it excluded from the community plan.
Planners ignored his request, Dibbs said, but accommodated a “large home builder” who also wanted his property kept out of the Keystone-Odessa boundaries.
Then in 2008, Dibbs attempted to have 300 acres on Lutz Lake Fern Road removed from the Keystone-Odessa plan so he could develop a subdivision at a higher density than allowed under the community plan. He also asked the county to extend the urban service area boundary so he could hook up to county water and sewer.
Keystone residents, who say they are trying to maintain a rural character in their northwest-county neighborhoods, stopped Dibbs from removing the property from the community plan and the county refused to extend the urban service area.
Last May, Dibbs took his battle against the Keystone-Odessa plan to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, a state court that handles challenges to government agencies. An administrative law judge heard the case Feb. 14-15 but has not filed a recommended order.
Barbara Aderhold, a member of the Keystone-Odessa Civic Association, attended the hearing. She said when Dibbs testified, he made many of the same points in the lawsuit — that the community plans are unconstitutional, inconsistent and based on faulty data.
Aderhold pointed out that Dibbs bought the Lutz Lake Fern Road property several years after the community plan was adopted and he should have known the plan precluded a densely developed subdivision.
“I think he has a personal vendetta against the Keystone-Odessa Community Plan,” Aderhold said. “He didn’t get what he wanted and he’s going about it any which-way he can.”
Dibbs also fought the county and north Hillsborough residents for two years over a borrow pit he started on his Lutz Lake Fern Road property. He applied for a special use permit for the pit in March 2006, hoping to supply dirt for construction of Steinbrenner High School at Lutz Lake Fern Road and Veterans Expressway.
Civic associations from surrounding neighborhoods rose up to protest the proposed borrow pit, saying the 56 or so dump trucks that would leave the pit each day would disturb the quiet, rustic character of their neighborhoods.
Dibbs charges in the lawsuit that county officials intentionally tried to delay permitting the borrow pit. At one point, Dibbs says, county officials claimed that sand from the pit was a mineral and therefore did not belong to him because of a minerals rights reservation on the land.
“The county does not impose similar delays on other property owners, but rather imposed this delay on Dibbs because county officials do not ‘like’ Dibbs,” the lawsuit charges.
The borrow pit was finally approved in February 2008, but Dibbs said the delay cost him the contract to supply dirt for the new school.
Denise Layne, who was then land-use liaison for the Lutz Civic Association, said the claim is false. By the time Dibbs filed for his permit, she said, the school was already being planned and contracts were about to be advertised for bidders.
“He doesn’t do things the right way; he does things the Dibbs’ way,” Layne said, “then he gets mad when (county officials) don’t want to play his game.”
In 2007, Dibbs was one of the leaders of an effort to eliminate the county’s wetlands protection division. Dibbs and some other developers said the division was duplicating regulatory actions performed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Supporters of the county agency said the water management district was not protective enough of environmentally sensitive marshes so the county had to take up the slack.
A split county commission first voted to scrap the wetlands agency, but then reversed course in the face of a public backlash.
County Attorney Chip Fletcher said he could not address specific allegations made by Dibbs in the lawsuit, but he promised a vigorous defense.
“We don’t think Mr. Dibbs has been treated any differently than anyone else who applies for permits from the county,” Fletcher said. “We think the code has been applied as written.”