A case study in east Hillsborough – can a community’s self-determination trump a developer’s connections?

By George Niemann

PoHo contributor, R-LAND, UCAN & Amendment 4 activist

Views expressed are my own & might not be shared by the organizations of which I am a member

A rezoning request from a developer in Valrico that is moving quickly through the process begs the question above. If you want to understand why Hillsborough currently suffers from a plethora of overdevelopment with no supporting infrastructure, take a look at this local case to see what happens when a developer wants to build something the community is dead set against. It sheds light on how a local community struggles to achieve self determination in a system that, more often than not, overrides what the citizens want for what a developer needs.

On Monday November 16, 2009 a request for a change in zoning was officially presented to Steve Luce, Hillsborough County’s Zoning Hearing Master.

The parcel is 19.2 acres and until recently was a working citrus grove. The owner is Dr. Gregory Henderson, an internist that specializes in eye surgery, as well as, land development, land speculation, and helicopter pads. It’s currently zoned as 1 acre residential but, as we all know, there’s a lot more profit in building higher density and/or mixed-use commercial, so Dr. Henderson has decided that this strictly residential section of Valrico needs a strip mall. In anticipation of problems with community acceptance, he hires two land development experts to pull off the “sting” (please put on some Scott Joplin piano music while you read the next part of this story). They are skid-greasers Vin Marchetti and Mike Horner. Vin and Mike are the crème de la crème for approval of horrible projects, each in their own right, but team the two together and they are invincible. Marchetti is well connected with some members of the county commission and they bend over backwards to give him every accommodation, so the owner of this property joins a long list of developers that want to improve their odds of passage by bringing in these heavy hitters.

This case demonstrates how the system is abused by the savvy dealmakers in getting zoning cases approved, no matter what the local community actually wants.

A few months ago medicine-men Marchetti and Horner held a public meeting for local residents at the Bloomingdale Library. In this first meeting the community was openly hostile and told Marchetti where he could stick his plan for a strip mall. No one in the room was pleased with what he offered. The community told him they would be OK with residential development, but not a strip mall. Marchetti gave the stock answer – changing their plan is not economically feasible (which really means that his client wants to make the most money he can and, as such, wants to build whatever he can get approved by our developer-friendly BOCC). The medicine men left with absolutely no positive feedback from the community.

They then scheduled a second meeting. At the second meeting, many people showed up who were not at the first meeting. Marchetti was salivating when he saw a slightly different crowd. He was hoping to find an appropriate shill that he could bring before the zoning hearing master and the BOCC and display them as a local resident that actually wanted this development. To his chagrin all of the attendees at the second meeting were openly hostile, as well. Then he tried forming a residents’ committee. Residents’ committee? Oh yes, that’s a tried and true developer ploy which is meant to give the impression that local residents came up with a solution, which just happens to be what the developer is proposing. Not one resident took the bait. Again they told him where to stick his project.

They are proposing to build a shopping center with an anchor store (Publix? Walmart? Sports Authority? Target?) and other smaller retail stores and professional offices. Just to make sure there’s a little something for everyone, they’ve thrown in some apartments, as well. The parcel is bordered by Lithia Pinecrest, Brooker, and Valrico roads in Brandon.

Why does the community object? The entire community objects because they don’t want or need anymore commercial/retail. They’ve got plenty of shopping a short distance away. The issues are traffic, noise, crime, late night retail operation, damaging water runoff, as well as, the drastic change of character that commercial operations bring to an otherwise quiet residential area.

Aside from having close social and political relationships with some of the decision makers, how do medicine men like Marchetti ply their trade? Here are some of the many tricks that they employ in the process of getting approval:

Bag of Tricks for Pre Zoning Meetings

• He told residents that even though they’re requesting to build at a certain density, they may decide to build much less, once it’s approved (Yeah, I've also got a bridge to sell you).

• The owner has property rights that he’s entitled to and we shouldn’t restrict his rights.

• They could’ve asked for higher density but they were feeling magnanimous and decided to cut residents a break.

• Existing traffic problems are the county's worry, not his.

• When residents asked if they could meet with the owner, Marchetti told them he’d get back to them. He never got back to anyone. We knew he was lying when he said it. The medicine men don’t ever want the owners to mix with the local riff raff.

• He tries to form a resident committee (for reasons described above)

The plot thickens - behind the scenes at County Center

The influence is subtle but becomes suspicious when studied in detail (take off the Scott Joplin music and put on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s, “That Smell”). Just before the zoning hearing took place, rumors were flying that PGM Case Planner Susan Mariner was taken off the case. Early on she had issues with the applicants proposed plan and was vocal about them. Her concerns centered around consistency and compatibility, two very important factors in deciding whether county staff could support the proposal. Suddenly, meetings were held between the applicant and PGM management, but without the case planner in attendance. As Marchetti repeatedly conferred with higher PGM management, the mood suddenly started shifting toward supporting the project. Case Planner Mariner did not go along with the sudden mood change (most of the lower level staff do have integrity and credibility). When she learned that the higher management wanted to support the project she ended up telling her boss, Brian Grady, to remove her name from the recommendation. She wanted no part of it. Of course, Grady willingly honored her request so that the favorable recommendation could move forward without a glitch. Peter Aluotto, Director of PGM personally approved this application, which is not the norm. According to Grady, this case was given special handling because it was considered controversial. I certainly would agree that this case is controversial, especially considering that the key staff who wouldn’t support it were pushed aside, as well as, the fact that the community unanimously opposes it.

So what made PGM management suddenly think this project was a good idea?

According to Grady, they had a change of heart because the applicant agreed to hold off on some of the development until Lithia Pinecrest Rd. gets widened. Oh, so let me understand this logic…you have a shopping mall that is totally out of character with the surrounding area, your experienced case planner thinks it’s unsupportable and refuses to put her name on the recommendation, the applicant has shown no demonstrated need for it, the community is totally opposed to it, and the developer doesn’t even have any possible tenants for this mall, but you’re ready to approve building it, as long as the developer takes his time? WTF?

Bag of Tricks Used at the Zoning Hearing

• The applicant gets 15 minutes to present their case. As usual Marchetti goes beyond the time alloted and continues until the hearing master advises that he's way over, time wise. He then says he'll be through shortly and takes another 10 (play by the rules? Nah, that's for losers).

• At the first hearing which ended up being postponed at Marchetti’s request, he calls the area residents liars, in an effort to demean their credibility in the eyes of the Zoning Hearing Master.

• Proponents of a rezoning application can speak in favor of it, as long as they’re not connected with the applicant. When it came time for proponents to speak, Marchetti sends Reed Fischback up to speak, even though he’s part of Marchetti’s team. He gets caught and Marchetti tries to justify the violation by saying that they have residents that support his project but he couldn’t find any in the audience so he thought that his person should speak as though he were those people (Huh?)

• He tries to marginalize the fact that the entire community is against his project by saying that the many hundreds of individually signed letters received by the county were merely form letters (hell, when voted in the last election that was sort of a “form letter…should my vote still count?).

• He submits last minute documents to the zoning hearing master without providing the opposition with copies. He is notorious for that. As a result, he is known in many circles as Last Minute Marchetti.

• He announces that his client has notified the county that he is opting out of the Brandon Community Plan. He wants to make sure that the community plan that’s about to be adopted doesn’t encumber his client’s plan to develop something that doesn’t fit in that community.

• He tells the zoning hearing master that he can’t use “need” as a valid criteria, even though the rules clearly state that need should be part of criteria used. The friendly guidance given to the hearing master is to make sure that he doesn’t look at “need” in the evaluation because there is clearly no need.

Deborah Humphrey one of the community leaders heading up the opposition questions the fairness of the process, "He is one property owner and we are hundreds, but it does seem the system favors the few over the many".

We now wait to see what the zoning hearing master will recommend and what ultimate decision the BOCC will make. The BOCC meeting will be on January 12 at 9am at county center. Will the county commission give this community the right of self determination or will they be influenced by the campaign money that Marchetti has given to most of them?

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