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Park tenants fear development

The owner of Westshore Mobile Home Park has filed paperwork that would allow him to develop or sell the property. But managers say they aren't going anywhere.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 14, 2003


[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
William Birchenough, 93, walks Jack outside the mobile home he shares with his daughter at Westshore Mobile Home Park. Rising land values are squeezing parks out of the market.
TAMPA -- Richard Peak made the white picket fence outside his single-wide mobile home himself, using scraps from discarded furniture piles.

Next to his stoop, banana trees and aloe plants grow. Home sweet home, surrounded by decay.

He could afford spiffier Camden Preserve, the sprawling apartment complex directly north of his Westshore Mobile Home Park, says the Ohio transplant.

But Peak, 51, out of work on disability, prefers his current two-bed, two-bath digs, where he pays about $500 a month to purchase his trailer from the landowner and rent a small lot.

"I like the idea of owning something," Peak said. "It's mine."

For now, anyway.

The owner of Westshore Mobile Home Park has filed paperwork with the city that indicates he intends to develop or sell the property, which houses 106 other mobile homes. That may be a sign of things to come in South Tampa, where rising land values are squeezing parks out of the market.

Peak doesn't think his home will face that fate, though he has certainly heard rumors. The owner insists he doesn't intend to sell, Peak said.

Resident property managers Billy and Julie Lollar also discount the rumor, despite the city filing. The Weis Group Inc., the company that owns the land, and particularly its principal, Stephen Weis, have assured them the property will stay as is.

"Mr. Weis is not wanting to sell his property," said Julie Lollar, who with her husband has managed the property for eight months and lives there with their four children. "He has no desire to get rid of this property. He's not about to sell it now."

Billy Lollar said Weis wants the roadway so that it can be better policed, because it is now frequently used for dumping and vandalism.

Weis did not return repeated phone calls to his Kennedy Boulevard office. The Lollars, after initially fielding questions, escorted a reporter and photographer from the property on a second visit.

In the petition filed with the city in September, the Weis Group asked the city to "vacate" W Everett Ave., meaning give the street back to the landowner. Everett Avenue separates West Shore Boulevard from Camden.

In a space that seeks a reason for the request, an agent for the Weis Group wrote: "To facilitate redevelopment of Westshore Mobile Home Park from mobile home use to a multifamily development consistent with existing RM-24 zoning." It also mentions the dumping and vandalism concerns.

"Nobody vacates a major road like that unless they're planning to do something," said Jimmy Cook, supervisor of right of way and mapping for the city of Tampa.

Everett Avenue leads to land along Tampa Bay that the city hopes to turn into a signature park.

The city has concerns about granting the request because of uncertainty over the property owner's intentions.

"That's been the problem since Day 1," Cook said.

Tampa City Council is expected to discuss the road closure Thursday.

photo
Vera Bennett, 51, has lived at Westshore Mobile Home Park for three years. She is looking for a new place because she has heard the rumors that the park may close.
The language in the company's petition provides a strong indication of what could happen to the property.

It promises a new development "consistent with existing RM-24 zoning." That alone suggests change.

The RM-24 zoning category does not typically allow mobile homes. The Weis Group, which purchased the roughly 7.5-acre parcel in 1992, has grandfathered permission to keep mobile homes there, an exemption that disappears if the land is redeveloped.

That zoning category typically is meant for apartments or townhouses, as it allows up to 24 homes or units per acre. What would be consistent? Something like Camden, which includes nearly 1,400 apartments north of the mobile home park.

Park atmosphere improves -- along with its value

Peak moved from his native Ohio to Westshore Mobile Home Park about four years ago with his wife, Kathy, and their 14-year-old son, Christopher, who has a learning disability. They liked the climate and proximity to schools specializing in students with special needs.

The park has seen its ups and downs, he said. People come and go. Few own their mobile homes.

Drugs sales have been a problem, along with loitering and dumping, Peak said. But mostly, people leave him alone and he's a short distance from the water. The Lollars, he says, have been good at staying on top of problems and fixing things.

"When we've had problems that were their problem, they called a plumber almost right away," Peak said.

Vera Bennett, 51, a part-time caregiver who owns her mobile home, moved into the park three years ago. She lives there with her friend's 14-year-old daughter and two other adults, including 36-year-old Scott Kinnane.

Like Peak, she said the park used to be rough. Then, about a year ago, new managers chucked the bad apples, she and Kinnane said.

Some residents had been cranking up their stereos. Some were dealing drugs. No surprise in a place where rents run $125 a week, said Kinnane, plopped on a couch and puffing on a cigarette.

"Wherever you get a lot of turnover, you get a lot of chaos," he said.

Still, many if not most of the mobile homes, which are generally older model single-wides, appear vacant. In the past two years, police have been called to the park 191 times, according to Tampa police records. Code enforcement has no open cases now, but over the past decade has visited the park to investigate everything from dumping to dilapidated trailers.

The more important statistic, however, is this: The Weis Group purchased the land in 1992 for $460,800. The Hillsborough County property appraiser's office values it at $1,473,500 now, recognizing the proliferation of upscale apartment complexes along South Westshore.

While it might come as a surprise to some, about 6,500 people in South Tampa live in mobile homes, or about one in 20 residents, according a 2002 study by Scarborough Research. In Hillsborough County generally, the number is one in 10.

Paid to move, with exceptions

As property values have climbed in South Tampa, the pressure to convert mobile home parks into something else has grown. That's what happened at the former Sunnydale Mobile Home Park across from Britton Plaza in 2000.

Sunnydale's owners gained notoriety when the owners evicted its largely elderly and disabled residents from the 200-home complex so that the site could be developed into luxury apartments. Many of the mobile homes were too old to move.

That led in part to state legislation creating a $500,000 trust fund that helps pay to move people who own their mobile homes, along with a contribution from landowners. Already, state law had required owners of mobile home parks to notify homeowner associations when they put their property up for sale or sought a rezoning.

Renters don't get relocation assistance. And notification requirements may not apply at Westshore, since there is no homeowners association and the zoning is already in place. The law also does not apply if the owner receives an unsolicited offer to sell.

"If they aren't going out and actually listing it, there's not a lot of options for the homeowners," said John Dingfelder, a lawyer who is running for Tampa City Council in the district representing South Tampa. Dingfelder took on the residents' case at Sunnydale.

Even with notice and money to move, residents at Westshore may have few options if they want to move their homes. There is a shrinking number of mobile home lots in South Tampa, said Roy Adams, a former resident of Sunnydale who launched the fight that ultimately spawned the new legislation.

Even he has heard that Westshore Mobile Home Park may be near an end, he said.

"I heard Westshore was going to be closed," he said. "They've got something in mind for it."

So for now, the few residents at Westshore Mobile Home Park must wait and hope the owners are being straight with them.

Peak says he chooses not to believe the worst.

Vera Bennett has heard the rumors for years.

She believes them. But she's not worried. She's ready to leave.

"I'm just tired of the park," said Bennett. "I want a yard. I want to do what I want to do."

William Birchenough, 93, is much more concerned.

He moved into the park in 1991. A retired tile worker, he shares his mobile home with his daughter and their dog, Jack. If the park was sold, they'd be in a bind, he said.

"It'd be bad. I'm a cripple," he said, pointing to his right leg, where he had surgery recently.

"I don't know how long it would take to move. I don't know how much they'd give me to move."

-- Times staff writer Ron Matus and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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