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Unlikely project is talked into play

Who would let a new development displace mobile homes in a Level A hurricane zone amid much opposition? The Pinellas Planning Council, after hearing one lawyer's spiel.

Published March 19, 2006

PINELLAS PARK - Attorney Tim Johnson had 12 minutes to convince a skeptical advisory board that his developer client should be allowed to build apartments and townhomes in a Level A hurricane zone.

Most observers thought the cause was lost: The specter of another active hurricane season loomed over the proceedings, and opposing Johnson's land use change were a state agency and the executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council.

An activist group of mobile home owners was against it, too, because the developer wants to raze the Golden Lantern Mobile Home Park.

But by the time Johnson sat down during last Wednesday's meeting, he had garnered eight of nine votes with PPC members praising his presentation and accepting a motion he wrote as their own.

Johnson had also convinced the PPC members that the fate of 30 homeowners at the Golden Lantern "really isn't your business."

Outgoing St. Pete Beach city Commissioner Deborah Martohue said Johnson's speech was "very persuasive to me" and one of the best presentations she had ever heard.

She later commended Johnson and the developer for their "tremendous" efforts at helping the Golden Lantern mobile home owners.

But South Pasadena Mayor Dick Holmes still worried.

"These 30 people have lives," said Holmes, who cast the lone vote against Johnson. "They're real people with real lives and real stories."

It was an integral, but unexpected, win for the developer in a battle that has taken more than a year to resolve as county, regional and state officials tried to figure out which hurricane zone the Golden Lantern is in. The hurricane zone would determine whether Johnson's land use change should be granted. Now with the PPC's favorable recommendation in his pocket, Johnson will head to the County Commission next month for a final decision.

* * *

The dispute over the Golden Lantern, in unincorporated Pinellas County on the edge of Pinellas Park, began when the developer, Triax, asked to change the zoning and land use designations from mobile home park to residential and a form of commercial.

Triax wants to replace the 178 mobile homes on the 19.7 acres with 333 rental apartments and townhomes. Up to 183 of the apartments would be earmarked as affordable housing. The townhomes would be sold at "market rate." A small retail center would go on the northwest part of the property that abuts Park Boulevard.

At first, the dispute over the Golden Lantern centered on the 100 or so residents who own their mobile homes but rent spaces in the park. Because the mobile homes are attached and are so old that they cannot be moved, those owners worried they would be left homeless with no way to recoup their losses.

Earlier this year Triax agreed to pay those owners a total of $1.25-million should the deal go through. At first, 72 owners said they wanted to deal, but only 68 signed the final papers. The other four had title and other legal issues that kept them from taking part in the settlement. The 68 homeowners will each get about $18,000.

The developer's focus then turned to the Golden Lantern's location in a "bowl" near the edge of the Cross Bayou Canal. The low-lying "bowl" created a puzzle for developers and government officials who needed to know which hurricane zone the mobile home park sits in.

According to the Pinellas County hurricane evacuation map, the park sits in a Level A evacuation zone, meaning people need to get out if a Category 1 hurricane threatens. That spelled doom for the Triax project - state law prohibits any development denser than five units an acre in an A zone.

But the current hurricane map issued by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council shows it in a B zone.

Johnson had argued that the TBRPC map should be followed.

Golden Lantern mobile home owner Charles Plancon argued that the county map should be heeded.

The argument delayed a final decision on the rezoning proposal.

The matter appeared settled when the TBRPC recently decided to change its map designation, saying Golden Lantern should be in an A zone and will be when the new maps are issued later this year. The state agreed. And at Wednesday's hearing, so did Gary Vickers, director of emergency management for Pinellas County.

"A," Vickers answered when asked which zone the park is in. "The elevation of this property right now would put most of this property in the Category 1 storm surge."

Still, Vickers said he would rather have up-to-date housing there than the dilapidated mobile homes currently on the property.

Other county officials maintained that the Golden Lantern is in the B zone, despite the TBRPC'S ruling.

In any case, Johnson told council members, Triax plans to mitigate the possibility of damage by raising the level of the land.

He also argued that PPC members should ignore a county rule. In determining land use, the rule says council members should use the more restrictive map. Johnson noted that state law mandates that the current TBRPC map be used and that the local rule should not override the state.

PPC members agreed with Johnson, saying they would recommend that the County Commission grant the rezoning and land use change if the developer raises the land level.

As members moved to discuss the mitigation, Johnson stood and said that he had written out a proposed motion. The typed motion was put on screens for board members to read.

Board members passed it 8 to 1. Their recommendation is scheduled to go before the County Commission for a final decision April 4.

Plancon was angered with the PPC decision. He had refused to accept Triax's settlement because he thought the rezoning would be found illegal.

"My soul is sick," Plancon said Thursday. PPC members and Pinellas County officials, he said, seem ready to ignore the rules against building at a high density in a coastal high hazard area - as long as they get rid of a shabby mobile home park.

"That's sad and it's scary," Plancon said.

[Last modified March 19, 2006, 01:07:22]

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