OPINION: Greedy development companies hurt local communities

Keystone and other Florida communities are being victimized by developers and the county needs to step in. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Land development company Taylor Morrison has continued to bully residents of Keystone by exploiting legal loopholes and blatantly ignoring local laws, and Hillsborough County has yet to put a stop to it.

Keystone, a rural area about half an hour north of USF, has been fighting to stop the development of 194 new homes in its community since August. Not only does it threaten their agricultural way of life, but the plans explicitly violate local ordinances, such as the Keystone Community Plan and the Unincorporated Hillsborough County Comprehensive Plan.

There is still time for county commissioners to step in and end this by issuing a stop work order for the project instead of letting Taylor Morrison with it, hurting the environment and community in the process.

Taylor Morrison has already been in hot water for environmentally damaging practices. In April they were issued a stop work order for removing trees without a permit, as reported in an Aug. 25 Oracle column.

One major recent concern of Keystone residents is what the new housing will mean for schools. Residents are worried about the increase in school-age children brought by these new homes. Hillsborough County Development Services found in a 2020 study that there will be sufficient space for the estimated 82 new children in the community.

Critics wonder where the county got this number and if it is even accurate, including Melissa Nordbeck, a Keystone resident and lead plaintiff in their lawsuit against Hillsborough County.

“Schools are already overcrowded even though the school capacity study says 194 homes will only result in 38 elementary, 17 middle and 27 high school students. Where do they even come up with that,” Nordbeck said in an Oct. 12 email to The Oracle.

Taylor Morrison has also been rushing to finish this project by exploiting loopholes in its work  permits. The company was permitted to work during the business week, so when residents saw workers out on a Saturday, they filed complaints and asked for penalties to be imposed.

The response from Richard Reidy, assistant to County Commissioner Ken Hagan, stated that the term “work week” is subjective so they can change the wording, but technically no violation occurred.

“I’d venture to say 99% of the world’s population, we’d take work days to coincide with week days. Nevertheless, it is a legal ambiguity. So technically there was no violation last week,” Reidy said in a Sept. 23 email to Nordbeck.

Irresponsible and inconsiderate development is a problem faced throughout Tampa Bay. USF Patel College of Global Sustainability students and members of the Land O’ Lakes community have been facing the same fight for the Rosebud Continuum Sustainability Education Center.

This group, called the Hale No! Citizens Coalition for Responsible Development, has been trying to protect the 46 acres surrounding the education center from money hungry developers for the past six years, as stated by USF professor Thomas Culhane in an Oct. 11 interview with The Oracle.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be any development at all.

There are ways to develop communities responsibly and safely, as evidenced by the Southwest Florida community Babcock Ranch, a “smart city” designed to be sustainable. The entire community is powered by a grid of solar panels and 50% of their footprint is greenspace, as stated on their website.

“We felt you could develop and improve land, not just develop in a traditional way where people think you are destroying the land. We have a lot of open spaces. We have a lot of trails. We have a lot of parks,” Jennifer Languell, resident and sustainability engineer, said in an Oct. 6 interview with NPR.

This is a sharp contrast to Taylor Morrison’s rushed, overcrowded Keystone development plan.

Development isn’t the issue here. The root of the problem is developers who see these buildings as money and don’t think about the way their projects affect real people, according to Culhane.

Public outcry has already helped push county commissioners in the right direction.

Taylor Morrison was planning to build a three-way intersection on the corner of Racetrack Road and Patterson Road near the Keystone community, as described on the Protect Keystone website. Residents were opposed to this. The vocal opposition led the county to suspend this project indefinitely.

“We see this victory as another example of the importance of public input regarding any project, but especially one of this magnitude and involving such legal complexities,” Nordbeck said.

It is past time for Hillsborough County Commissioners to do the right thing and stop these unnecessary and harmful developments.