New rules would favor developers

Four changes could substantially change the rights of mobile home dwellers and enhance developers' rights.

Published August 9, 2006

Proposed changes to the county's zoning rules would allow developers to change their rezoning requests for increased density at the last minute without giving neighbors a chance to know about the change in advance and would reduce protections for residents of mobile home parks in unincorporated Pinellas.

Both mobile home owners and renters would be affected under two of the changes proposed by Pinellas County staff members.

In one case, renters would lose the 90-day cushion they have between the time the county's Local Planning Agency hears a request for a park to be rezoned and the time it goes before the County Commission for final approval.

In another change, some mobile home owners could receive short-term monetary help to afford a new place to live rather than being guaranteed that "adequate and suitable" housing is available before a park is razed.

Two other proposals would allow developers to change plans in front of the Local Planning Agency or the County Commission rather than go back through the hearing process and advertise the new plan to neighbors and others who might be affected.

The proposals will be heard Thursday by the Local Planning Agency, a group made up of the staff members who developed the proposed changes. The meeting is open to the public.

If the proposals get planning agency approval, they would go before the County Commission in October for approval before going into effect.

The county staff is proposing several amendments to the rules governing land use and zoning changes in unincorporated Pinellas. Four of them could substantially change the rights of mobile home dwellers and enhance developers' rights while helping to speed their proposals through the system:

- Under the current rules, a developer must wait at least 90 days after the planning agency hearing before the County Commission hears his proposal to rezone a mobile home park.

The proposed change would take away that cooling period for parks in which none of the residents own the mobile homes they live in.

Paul Cassel, the county's head of development review services, said the proposed change was "not a big deal at all."

The original intent was to apply only to mobile home owners "so everybody knows what's going on," Cassel said. The 90 days helped give those owners time to find another place to live.

The change will make the rule reflect that intent, he said. Cassel dodged questions about the ability of mobile home renters to find another place to live when potentially hundreds of them might need to find new homes.

"I hear what you're saying," Cassel said. He repeated that the rule was never meant to apply to anyone but those who own their mobile homes but not the land beneath them.

- Under state law, a developer must show, and the county must find, that there is "adequate and suitable" housing available for mobile home owners who would be displaced by the county's changing the zoning to allow for the redevelopment of their park. If the developer cannot show that, state law says the county cannot rezone the park to allow it to be redeveloped.

The county staff wants to change that. If the developer cannot show that there is adequate and suitable alternate housing, the developer would pay into a county fund that would give some mobile home owners rental assistance for two years. At the end of that time, the former homeowner would be on his own. It is the payment into the fund that the county says meets the requirements of state law to allow the park to be redeveloped.

Cassel disagreed that the new rule would allow developers to make an end run around state law, saying the change only "references" the county's Mobile Home Transition Ordinance that set up the assistance program.

But Cassel did agree there might be reason to hold off on changing the rule because mobile home activists have sued the county over the transition ordinance.

"It is under litigation," Cassel conceded. "I think that's a pretty valid point."

Cassel said he would talk to the county's attorneys to see if it would be wiser to wait until a judge decides if the transition ordinance is valid before changing the county zoning and land-use rules.

- The other two changes go hand in hand. Under current rules, if a developer wants to substantially change his rezoning proposal after it has passed the Local Planning Agency, he must start over again by asking for another agency hearing and having his proposal advertised so that neighbors and other interested parties can comment if they choose.

If the new rule is adopted, the developer could change his rezoning request at the last minute, in front of the planning agency or the County Commission without informing neighbors or other affected people that such a thing was happening. This would essentially remove the right of others to be adequately notified before the hearings of the new rezoning proposal. This rule change would apply to all development, not just mobile home parks.

While conceding that this change in the rezoning procedures could be used to increase density, Cassel said the intent is not to eliminate public notice or comment. The idea, he said, is to allow developers to change their plans to a less intense use without having to go back through the system.

"The staff is actually bringing this thing forward," Cassel said. "The board doesn't want to open up Let's Make a Deal at commission hearings. We want it all done out in the sunshine, above board."

He said that some items, such as density increases, should go back and be reviewed from the start. But because the proposal does not say that, Cassel said the staff might want to take another look at it before sending it to the board.

If you go:

The Local Planning Agency will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday in the County Commissioners Assembly Room on the fifth floor of the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.