Tampa City Council Denies Proposal To Allow New Development On The East Side Of Morris Bridge Rd.
Research by Joel Provenzano
When Cory Lake Isles first began developing in the late 1980s, the only entrance to that now-built-out community was off Morris Bridge Rd. — at that time a little-known, little-used, two-lane arterial roadway that connected to Fletcher Ave. and I-75, four miles south of the Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. exit off I-75, which turned north towards (and continuing past) the Pasco County line.
It wasn’t until several years later, when Cory Lake Isles developer Gene Thomason was able to get a new entrance to his fledgling community off Cross Creek Blvd., that home sales in Cory Lake Isles really began in earnest. Until then, Morris Bridge Rd. was — pun intended — a bridge too far for most of the people who wanted to move into the suddenly burgeoning community that first began being called “New Tampa” in the mid-1990s.
But, while it took about another decade for any significant new development along Morris Bridge Rd. to take hold, the huge K-Bar Ranch development started with the Easton Park subdivision just north of Pride Elementary. Today, K-Bar/Easton Park is the only community in the entire City of Tampa experiencing significant growth.
To that end, on Nov. 30, District 7 Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera and his fellow City Council members unanimously voted down a proposed comprehensive plan amendment for 28.36 total acres in two parcels (see map) on the east side of Morris Bridge Rd. (property that was annexed into the city in 2007), that would have allowed for up to 43 new single-family homes (and more) to be built across Morris Bridge Rd. from an undeveloped portion of the Easton Park subdivision.
“My constituents who live in K-Bar Ranch, Easton Park and Cory Lake Isles all tell me that Tampa shouldn’t allow any additional development along Morris Bridge Road,” Viera told me after the Nov. 30 public hearing. “They all say, ‘Morris Bridge is full,’ and I definitely agree with that.”
Since the City of Tampa annexed (in 2007), for the first time ever, property previously located in unincorporated Hillsborough County, east of Morris Bridge Rd., no property owners in that area had ever requested to build new residential units or commercial buildings in that area.
That changed on Nov. 30, when representatives for Ike and Yvonne Okeke, who own two parcels totalling 28.36 acres on the east side of Morris Bridge Rd. (across from a currently undeveloped portion of the Easton Park subdivision of K-Bar Ranch), requested Amendment #TA/CPA 23-19) to the City of Tampa’s Comprehensive Plan that, if approved, would have allowed the property to change from its Rural Estate-10 & Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) Adopted Future Land Use designation to Suburban Mixed Use-3 (which allows for up to three dwelling units per acre) and ESA.
Considering that there are only about 14.36 acres of developable land on the site, without the Plan Amendment, the property owners can only build one dwelling unit — or 40,000 sq. ft. of non-residential uses — on the site.
If the change had been approved, however, the property owners could have built up to 43 single-family detached and multi-family dwelling units or 156,380 total sq. ft. of both residential and non-residential uses.
All of the property on the east side of Morris Bridge Rd. included in the 2007 annexation was originally designated as Rural Estate-5, meaning that only one dwelling unit per acre would be allowed.
However, in 2008, according to staff planner Jennifer Malone of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission staff, who appeared at the Nov. 30 public hearing, the Comprehensive Plan was amended to further reduce the number of possible dwelling units per acre on the east side of Morris Bridge Rd. from 1 dwelling unit per 5 acres to just 1 unit per 10 acres.
Malone confirmed that this Comprehensive Plan land use designation is the lowest future land use category in the entire City of Tampa and, in fact, the Rural Estate-10 designation was actually created by the City for these annexed properties.
According to Malone, the land, which, to the east, is near Hillsborough River State Park and the Lower Hillsborough Wildlife Management area, is uniquely environmentally sensitive.
In fact, Malone said, “The State Department of Community Affairs (DCA) commented that the annexed property is so unique that RE-5 wasn’t rural enough for this area,” which helped the city decide to create the RE-10 designation specifically for this area. The DCA also wanted the land use for the city property to match the one dwelling unit per 10 acres designation of the adjacent Hillsborough County property.
Prior to the Nov. 30 hearing, the proposal to change the land use designation was first rejected by the Planning Commission staff for being “inconsistent with the Tampa Comprehensive Plan,” a conclusion shared by the City of Tampa’s own staff — due to the lack of utilities and city services within the area and lack of similar land uses on the east side of Morris Bridge Rd. — even though the property in the undeveloped portion of Easton Park directly across Morris Bridge Rd. already has the Suburban Mixed Use-3 designation that these property owners were seeking for their land.
Malone pointed out, however, that there are “no Suburban Mixed Use-3 land uses on the east side of Morris Bridge, which has a significantly different development pattern than the west side.”
Tampa’s Transportation Planning Organization also noted that there are no roadway capacity improvements, transportation projects or transit services planned for the area (more on this below).
Evan Johnson with the City’s planning department, corroborated Malone’s claims:
1) He said Morris Bridge Rd. can’t handle any additional capacity and isn’t programmed to get any larger or to offer any type of mass transit.
2) He said the property is too environmentally sensitive and too close to Hillsborough’s rural service area to allow the change.
3) And, “The property owners are not required to connect to city utilities but, depending upon what they end up wanting to build, they could be required to do so.”
Also, Johnson said, “The closest possible hook-up for water would be 1,700- 2,000 feet away, in the new portion of K-Bar Ranch. And, the nearest wastewater hookup is a manhole in Easton Park that would be about a 1/4-mile from this site, and those are significant distances and could cost from several hundred thousand to a million dollars or more to build these facilities.”
Because of all of these factors, and the significant increase in proposed density of the site, Johnson said, “We object to the change in the character (of the property) because the jump is so large.”
David Wright, who spoke on behalf of the property owners, said that the density request was reduced from their original proposal, adding that, “We know where the wetlands are” and that the proposal took those into account. Wright claimed that the 14-1/2 acres fronting Morris Bridge Rd. “is ready for development, so all we’re really asking for is a continuation and expansion of the same Morris Bridge land use (on the west side).” Wright also acknowledged that the property owner would be responsible for making the utility connection to the site.
Turning It Down
District 7 City Councilman Luis Viera, whose district includes all of the city portions of New Tampa, made the motion to deny the plan amendment. The proposed change was unanimously (7-0) voted down by the Council members, after Viera said he had, “A lot of high hurdles with this proposal, including across-the-board negative comments from both the Planning Commission and City staff.”
Viera also noted that even though the property on both sides of Morris Bridge Rd. in this area is city property, the roadway itself is a county road, “and my understanding is that it can’t be expanded, because of its environmental designation…and it is just packed at the seams right now, which is one of the top things I hear from my constituents.”
He added that another big issue he has are the emergency response times by Tampa Fire Rescue in K-Bar Ranch, as well as, “the mosque, the church and the Sikh house of worship, all on Morris Bridge Rd. I see this as a size-36 waist trying on size-32 pants and I can’t see supporting this proposal.”
But, What About Two Rivers?
Even though the east side of Morris Bridge Rd. is clearly environmentally sensitive, a little to the north of the Pasco County line, the road is currently being widened to accommodate the new 3,405-acre Two Rivers development, which is planned to include 6,400 new residential units, 1.3-million-sq.-ft. of office and industrial space and 630,000 sq.- ft. of retail space, plus three new schools, a golf course and numerous other amenities.
The second phase of Two Rivers actually extends south of the Pasco County line and the development is certain to bring much more traffic to Morris Bridge Rd., so the hope here is that something can be done to widen Morris Bridge Rd. south of the county line, too.