In his fight to stop sprawl, Hillsborough commissioner takes to the sky

Excuse Stacy White for getting on his soapbox or sounding like a broken record or whatever disclaimer he offers before launching into yet another diatribe on his favorite punching bag: land use policies.

During Hillsborough County Commission meetings, White’s monologues against unchecked growth can elicit eye rolls, silence or, on good days, polite encouragement.

But during a recent helicopter tour of Hillsborough County, White had a captive audience for one of his soliloquies: Sheriff David Gee. And Gee’s interest wasn’t tied to his limited options for escape, the most appealing of which was a 600-foot jump.

Looking down, Gee took in the thousands of houses that have sprung up since he joined the department in 1978. For him, they mean one thing: “Calls for service,” he said.

As if on cue, the police radio in the helicopter began chirping.

“It’s 10 o’clock in the morning,” Gee said. “There didn’t used to be 911 calls at 10 o’clock in the morning.”

Hillsborough’s population has more than doubled since Gee started at the department, to 1.4 million. An additional 600,000 people are projected to move here in the next 25 years.

From the ground, residents can feel the gradual changes growth brings: crowded strip malls, longer commutes and, some complain, a slow erosion of a quieter way of life.

But the sky offers an opportunity to see sprawl in real time, and indeed the bird’s-eye view of Hillsborough’s latest development spurt is stark.

Throughout south and east Hillsborough County, in areas around Ruskin and Little Manatee and FishHawk, White and Gee see vast forests and uplands full of sand pine abruptly turn into scraped land, and then platted plots with the tracings of roads and upcoming subdivisions. Soon the outlines give way to a row of houses springing up in successive stages — the first, just the base of a house; next a frame; then a roof half full of shingles.

Finally, there’s a completed two-story McMansion, followed by hundreds of identical companions.

This is the kind of development that White bemoans from the dais — the kind that expands the definition of the county’s urban core and is carved out of previously untouched environmental land.

As the helicopter flies over the last remnants of Hillsborough’s scrub, White stares at it, looking almost afflicted.

“I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the east Hillsborough Republican said, “But being born here, this is just beautiful to me.”

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White has made preventing unmitigated sprawl his top priority as commissioner.

He made little headway during his first two years, when much of the board’s energy was spent searching for transportation solutions.

But he’s made more progress since November, when he was named board chairman, a swift rise for the mild-mannered first-term commissioner whose conservative views stand out even on a board controlled by Republicans. He’s also found an unlikely political ally in the newest commissioner, Pat Kemp, who comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum but similarly attacks suburban sprawl.

At White’s urging, the county will hold a land use workshop on Wednesday. Commissioners will debate how to grow so the influx of residents and new construction pay for their impact on water systems, public safety and roads instead of straining already-tight resources.

One example of the problems they face: Commissioners recently learned the county needs 25 new fire stations in the next 25 years to keep up with past and future population growth. Capital costs, meaning the expense of building the fire stations and buying the trucks to fill them, would require about $20 million a year through 2031.

And thousands of acres in south Hillsborough County rezoned in recent years for suburban density are ready for development. According to county planning studies, nearly 150,000 residents will move to south county by 2040, pushing that region past Brandon as the most populous area in unincorporated Hillsborough.

Other more traditionally rural areas are expected to boom, as well. Projections show Seffner/Thonotosassa will see its population double to 108,000 during that time.

In all those people, White sees an encroachment on the county’s rural and environmental lands. He sees an influx of cars turning two-lane country roads into makeshift thoroughfares. He sees the final nail in the coffin of southeast Hillsborough’s once flourishing tomato farms and citrus groves.

“We can’t make the same mistakes as we did in the past,” White said.

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Through the helicopter headset, Gee urges White on.

As the chopper floats over neighborhoods, Gee points out subdivisions in south county and new big-box stores that have created troubles lately for his department. A newer development near South Shore, he notes, floods when it rains, making it difficult for deputies to reach people.

In the past six years, calls for service in Hillsborough have increased by nearly 100,000, according to numbers provided by the Sheriff’s Office. The biggest jump is in District 4, south Hillsborough, where there were 153,000 calls last year, up from 122,000 in 2010.

Gee said the staff has not increased at the same pace as the population. There were 1.77 officers per 1,000 people in 2010. Now the ratio is 1.55 per 1,000.

“We should be at a minimum at two officers per 1,000 people,” Gee said.

Efficiencies and technology have helped the department keep up with the changing landscape. The county has four helicopters, for example, to keep tabs on a county with a land mass the size of Rhode Island.

But every time he gets in one of them, he sees more calls for service springing up.

“It’s unbelievable to me,” Gee said. “Every time you do this, it’s almost staggering. It’s been an amazing transformation, and not all for the better.”