Mobile home holdouts live in misery

Pinellas park But it is the landowners who have been victimized, a lawyer for one says.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007

Life seems to get worse every day for the 30 or so people remaining at the Golden Lantern Mobile Home Park.

The latest came last week when a bright new chain-link fence was erected around the nearly 20 acres at 7950 Park Blvd. in the unincorporated county on the western edge of Pinellas Park. The fence closed off all entries into the park except one on Park Boulevard. It bore a sign saying, "This site will be fenced and gated as of Sept. 10, 2007."

The sign is not meant to indicate that residents will be locked out of their homes, said David Bernstein, the St. Petersburg attorney who represents Kevin Voss and Triax, the owners of the park. The fence is a security measure because the park, which officially closed May 15, is being dismantled, he said.

"Looters and vagrants and thieves (were) having a field day," Bernstein said. When mobile home parks close, "people come out of the woodwork to take things."

Bernstein acknowledged that the fence has blocked the rear of the property where children wait for school buses. Now the kids must exit the Golden Lantern on Park and walk around back to catch the bus.

"It's a small price to pay in light of the protection afforded," Bernstein said.

Tampa attorney Joe Magri, who represents more than 80 current and former residents of the park, said it's not just the fence and the sign. Everything going on at the Golden Lantern is making life miserable for his clients.

His clients have told him that the water is cut off almost every day, and that they have been told to boil their water before drinking it.

Bernstein agreed that the water has been turned off frequently. But it's only for repairs after "sabotage on water lines, which is retaliation from tenants for closure of the park."

Voss, he said, has been "victimized" by the tenants and by Pinellas County.

Voss' "victimization" by the county was complete last month when county commissioners unanimously rescinded a land-use change that they had granted Voss last year, he said.

The state found that the commission had wrongfully granted the land-use change, which would have permitted Voss and Triax to build 333 affordable apartments and high-end condominiums on the property.

The rescission has left his client in limbo, Bernstein said. His decision to close the park was necessary, the attorney said, because it is not viable.

Voss has obeyed state and local laws concerning the closing and dismantling of the Golden Lantern, Bernstein said. Voss, he added, has also tried to help people find a new place to live and done his best to help them.

"There is an intent to help as best as possible in the context of the statute to get those residents relocated," Bernstein said. "But it's up to them, too."

He says the tenants have stayed because they believe they are entitled to compensation that they are not owed. If they are miserable, he said, they have the option of leaving.

"There's absolutely no intent to make anything awful," Bernstein said. "The reality is those conditions have, in large measure, been brought about by themselves."

Magri, the attorney for the residents, said: "It's absurd to make that suggestion, especially with no evidence."

The problems, he said, have been caused by the destruction of the mobile homes that surround his clients. And Voss has not tried to help the remaining tenants, some of whom are elderly and disabled, Magri said.

"They have no idea that they're being helped. They all believe that they're being hurt," Magri said. "It's one thing to do PR in a situation like this. It's another to ignore the facts. That's what's going on."

Cliff Smith, assistant director of the Pinellas County Health and Human Services department, said his agency has been out to the Golden Lantern twice in the past two weeks.

He conceded that living conditions are rough.

"I wouldn't want to be there," Smith said.

Smith said his agency went to the Golden Lantern to try to hook up remaining residents with the necessary help, whether it was contacts for new places to live or financial assistance. Smith said about 15 people were provided information.

He was unclear if any had found new homes. Smith said residents were told to call if they still needed help.