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Residents oppose project funds

At a hearing, many inform a state agency that they do not want bonds issued for affordable apartments.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 25, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- Hundreds of Spring Hill residents opposed to the pending rise of affordable apartments near their homes vented concerns before someone new Monday -- someone with the power to stop the projects' funding in itstracks.

Tom Lang, outside counsel for the Florida Housing Finance Corp., collected statements at the Hernando County Fairgrounds for more than four hours to help Gov. Jeb Bush decide whether to issue tax-exempt bonds for the Spring Haven and Barclay Forge apartments.

"I don't make any decisions. I'm just a conduit of the information," Lang said.

Bush, on the other hand, has the federal authority to approve or deny the bonds that would pay for the developments at the Seven Hills and Silverthorn subdivisions. Though he cannot rezone the property, Lang said, Bush has few other guidelines to follow in his deliberations.

Generally, he said, the governor seeks to balance community desires, property rights and project necessity in determining whether he will allow the state to use tax-exempt financing for a project. Lang expected to make his report to Bush by late July, with the governor's decision to come after the Florida Housing Finance Corp. rates the projects.

County commissioners, meanwhile, will consider whether to continue their support of the complexes.

During their meeting today, commissioners will vote on a commitment letter for $660,050 in local State Housing Initiative Partnership funds for the Spring Haven Apartments. The board approved the loan earlier this year, but developer Richman Group of Florida requested changes.

County lawyers have advised that commissioners have the discretion to issue the loan, which would back a second mortgage. Housing director Donnie Singer has warned, though, that the developer could challenge a change of direction, because little seems to have changed since January except the rising heat of public discontent.

Still, Commissioner Chris Kingsley suggested that approval is not automatic.

"Considering we're finding out -- that we don't have the infrastructure needs yet -- there is the possibility that this could be denied," Kingsley said.

Commissioner Diane Rowden agreed, but others on the board said they would withhold judgment until today's meeting, after they hear staff reports.

Also today, commissioners might look at a resolution opposing the state bonds that so many residents spoke against Monday. Four of five commissioners said they had no idea why county lawyers had drafted the resolution, and that they were not familiar enough with it to have formed an opinion.

Chairwoman Nancy Robinson could not be reached.

Many residents made it clear, through written and spoken comments, that they did not want the governor to issue the bonds if they go before him for approval.

The reasons for their opposition ranged from the moral to the financial, with the phrase "deny the bonds" often expressed.

Jan Hoffmeister of Silverthorn aired the concern, shared by many, that affordable apartments would devalue existing homes.

"You can call it affordable housing -- you can call it whatever you want. It's all the same," she said. "It's still a project."

Reginald Bender of Seven Hills, retired from the New York City public housing department, shared that fear.

"I know what it can do," he said. "I have seen it destroy many communities."

Grace Conger, vice president of the Silverthorn Homeowners Association, suggested that the apartments' impact on traffic, water and schools would present a burden. Theodore Romer, also of Silverthorn, contended the need for additional apartments was nil.

He reviewed a list of "constantly advertised" apartments, and said the county has enough apartments renting at low cost already.

"I'm asking Gov. Bush, don't risk using public funds on a project that might not be necessary," Romer said. "It's a decision that cannot be taken back."

Bill Whitted of Seven Hills talked about working hard all his life for what he has, and said he now enjoys a nice home and lifestyle.

"It's just morally wrong to put low-cost housing in an area where most of the people did the same thing," he said.

Only the developers had any positive words for the projects. In a letter, the Richman Group also had some negative thoughts about the opponents, saying the controversy was created by "not-in-my-backyard" attitudes "solely because it is affordable."

State Sen. Ginny Brown Waite, R-Brooksville, called for the public hearings so Bush would get the full flavor of these views, noting he weighs such sentiment "very seriously."

She blamed county commissioners for allowing the developments to get so far, saying the commission over the years approved the rezonings, supported the financing and told residents nothing could be done to stop the apartments.

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