Activists suing Hillsborough County over wetland rezoning
BRANDON - Residents are suing Hillsborough County and RaceTrac Petroleum over a rezoning that would allow wetland destruction for the construction of a gas station. Oak Park Townhomes Homeowners Association and residents Mark Harris and Tammy C. Cabrera are named as plaintiffs in the two suits, which allege that the county overstepped its own rules to approve modified zoning on a parcel at the southeast corner of Lumsden Road and Kings Avenue. Other community activists have also donated money to fund the suit. Oak Park is located just west of the project in question and Harris and Cabrera, who both own nearby property, also oppose the rezoning. The community activists and their attorney, Pamela Jo Hatley, contend that a previous owner who built an office park on much of the land at and near the intersection, agreed in 2003 to protect the wetland there in exchange for building commercial structures further from the roads.The property was since sold and the new owners asked the county last year for a major modification that would allow commercial development on 2.5 acres of a 39-acre wetland. The planning commission found the major modification request to be in conflict with the county’s comprehensive plan, a blueprint for future growth. A zoning hearing master, in reviewing the rezoning request, recommended that the county commission deny it, because of the planning commission’s findings and the previous agreement that the wetland would be protected. The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission director denied a request to destroy and mitigate the wetland. But the rezoning request lived on. Attorney Vin Marchetti, who represents land owner J.E. McLean III and RaceTrac, filed an appeal of the wetlands ruling with the Environmental Protection Commission, which has not yet been resolved. Once the appeals process is finished, the matter will come back to the county commission, which also sits as the Environmental Protection Commission. In the meantime, the county commission directed the zoning hearing master to reconsider the rezoning, without taking into account that a wetland would be destroyed to build a gas station and convenience store. Under those conditions, the zoning hearing master approved the rezoning. When the county sent the rezoning request back to the zoning hearing master, due process was denied to those opposing the proposal, said community activist Terry Flott, with United Citizens Action Network, or UCAN–Hillsborough County. The public was left out of the discussion on whether to send the rezoning request back to the zoning hearing master for a second look, Flott said. “And it’s not only about the wetland,” she said. “It’s about agreements that were made. A developer got something in exchange for preserving the wetland. Then, the new owner reneged on that agreement. “These suits are to let the county know that we’ve had it and we’re not going to stand for it anymore. At a minimum, they should follow their own rules and not be so blatantly biased.” Marchetti said he believes the rules were followed properly and that his client did not receive any special favors from the commission in this case. He said the lawsuits were not entirely unexpected, based on the amount of opposition to the RaceTrac rezoning. But, he said, “the record is very sound, in my opinion, and complete. We’ll see what happens. RaceTrac is … fully prepared to defend the action.” Hatley said that the first suit, filed just against the county, asks the court to answer whether the county commission violated its comprehensive plan – a blueprint for future county growth – when it approved the rezoning. The second suit, which also names RaceTrac, asks the court to consider several things, Hatley said. One is, did the county afford the petitioners (Oak Park and the others) due process? Another is, did the county apply the law correctly in approving the rezoning? No hearing has been set at this time. The court will first decide whether the cases should proceed.