Hillsborough OKs end to Bearss Groves zoning dispute

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners resolved a years-long dispute with the Bearss Groves produce stand Thursday, agreeing to a revised zoning designation to allow the retail agricultural store to continue operating.

“I just breathed this deep sigh of relief and I just think this is great for everyone. It is a much-beloved business,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp.

She wasn’t the only one to heap accolades on the stand. Commissioner Ken Hagan called it a “treasure” and commission chairperson Kimberly Overman said it was a “jewel” where her grandson was photographed with Florida’s largest pumpkin.

The discord began in 2018 when county code enforcement officers said the roadside stand at 14316 Lake Magdalene Blvd. never got the permission it needed to operate, including a development plan and permits for its structures.

Owner Barry Lawrance, who bought Bearss Groves in 2008, argued his business is part of a legitimate agricultural operation protected by state law and exempt from the county rules.

But, $200-per-day county fines kept accumulating — eventually reaching $160,0000 — after Lawrance took his dispute to court. His challenges to the Hillsborough Property Appraiser’s Office, the Value Adjustment Board, a special magistrate, Hillsborough Circuit Court and finally the 2nd District Court of Appeal all affirmed the county’s position.

The store was not considered a bona fide agricultural operation by the county because the 3,000-foot store sells more than fresh fruit and vegetables and sits on land that does not have a greenbelt exemption as farmland.

“It’s a case, in my opinion, where our policies and codes and common sense are not necessarily aligned,” Hagan said Thursday.

Commissioners voted 7-0 to change the land’s zoning to what is known as planned development ― effectively permitting the produce stand, harvesting area and single-family home to remain as is. A portion of the nearly 3-acre property had been zoned exclusively for residential use, prompting the code enforcement action.

Obtaining proper zoning for the land was necessary before the county can consider waiving the $160,000 in fines that Lawrence said previously could force the produce stand out of business.