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    Wetlands plan would uproot Friendly Village

    The mobile home park's residents say they can't afford to move and fear they won't be paid enough.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Grand oak trees surround Friendly Village of Kapok, a mobile home park nestled in a small valley in east Clearwater a few blocks from McMullen-Booth Road.

    Snowy egrets strut along the weed-blanketed bank of Alligator Creek, which cuts through this community. Kids run barefoot on some afternoons, picking oranges from the citrus trees for a snack.

    It feels like "country living," said one Canadian winter resident, Leonard St. Pierre. "There's no other park like this," added his wife, Lina.

    Residents of Friendly Village say that they like their homes here and want to stay a while.

    But the city has other ideas.

    Clearwater is selecting a consulting firm to help it acquire the 37-acre Friendly Village mobile home park and relocate the residents of about 200 homes to other area mobile home parks.

    The city would use the Friendly Village land to create a 26-acre wetlands and recreation area. Acquiring the mobile home park -- which requires City Commission approval this spring -- would take two years.

    City engineers say that a wetlands area would help correct drainage problems in a 5,700-acre area of east Clearwater and Pinellas County.

    Rather than flooding streets in areas like College Hill northwest of Drew Street and U.S. 19, water draining from east Clearwater would be channeled to the new wetland area.

    City officials have promised College Hill residents in recent months that such drainage concerns will be addressed as the city builds a new Philadelphia Phillies spring training complex nearby to open in 2003.

    The new water-retention area also would act as a natural filter for pollutants before they reach Alligator Lake and then flow onto Tampa Bay.

    City officials anticipate spending up to $12.7-million on the project.

    "The difficulty is that to resolve the problems in this basin, it requires us to put more water into" the Alligator Creek area, said Thomas Miller, an assistant engineering director for the city.

    "But we can't resolve the other flooding problems, as long as it will cause problems for people who are living in the wrong place," Miller said of Friendly Village residents. "You're talking about sending a huge amount of water there, and they're at the bottom of the hill all the water comes to."

    Miller suggested that the site of the mobile home park, a wetlands that was developed in 1967, never should have been built upon.

    Still, Friendly Village residents report no major flooding problems for a decade. Some objected to the city's plans when they were proposed in 1997.

    "There must be another alternative rather than put families at a loss of what to do or where to go," resident Richard Pusey wrote the city then. "What about the investment and money I have put in my trailer? Am I going to get that all back -- or are you planning to offer a 'take it and shut up' amount so we can't financially find a place to live. . . . Please consider the consequences."

    Last week, some residents said that they still didn't know very much about the city's proposal or why it would be necessary. They feel their homes would be hard to replace.

    "It feels like you're camping all the time," said Nancy Chiormitro, who lives in Friendly Village with her boyfriend. "There's otters, gators, eagles and hawks. Me and my boyfriend sat out here one time and counted 18 species of birds."

    Friendly Village also is inexpensive, with rents of $340 monthly -- affordable for the park's elderly residents on fixed incomes who meet every Thursday morning for coffee, and for the many families with tight budgets who live there.

    The low rent and natural setting also have attracted migrants from Mexico and Central America. Resident Yolanda Cortez said she lives here because the park is "expensive but pretty." She couldn't afford anything nicer, she said, speaking in Spanish. "A house here is very, very expensive."

    St. Pierre and his wife, retirees from Canada who spend their winters here, wondered whether they would lose the $45,000 they spent renovating their Friendly Village home.

    The St. Pierres said they don't think their mobile home could be moved anywhere else, particularly after the work done to it. They questioned how much money the city would pay them for their home if they couldn't move it.

    "If they have to do this, they have to do it," said St. Pierre. "But the city has to fairly compensate the people in the park."

    Jerry Ripoli and Nancy Puzar, a pair of singers who are engaged, had similar concerns. The inexpensive rent at Friendly Village allows Puzar to stay home with her child while her fiance works as a department store salesman.

    Puzar said she and her 6-year-old daughter enjoy going on nature walks around their home, plucking pine cones and sticks from the ground. They even built a "gnome house" in her daughter's room with the natural materials.

    "We've been talking about finding a house. But we need the proceeds of the sale of our mobile home to move," Puzar said. "If there was an equitable solution to this, then it wouldn't be an issue."

    Ripoli agreed. "The city has to make sure residents here are treated fairly," he said.

    Clearwater would have to buy the Friendly Village from a Farmington Hills, Mich.-based company, Wolverine Property Investment L.P. The city has appraised the park for $4.5-million, records indicate, and Wolverine wants more than twice that.

    Representatives of Wolverine did not return telephone messages last week.

    Terry Finch, who coordinates environmental engineering projects for the city, said the city would do all it could to help displaced residents.

    "What I can tell you is we'll try our best to make it as painless for the residents as possible if it gets to the point we purchase the property," Finch said.

    Four consulting firms, who applied last week to help the city to acquire the park, presented plans to assist residents. Their ideas included surveying residents' needs, purchasing mobile homes that couldn't be moved off the property and paying moving costs.

    HDR Engineering Inc. of Tampa even gave the city a preliminary survey of vacancies in 82 local mobile home parks, showing 283 open spots in local senior parks -- plenty of room for elderly residents who could be displaced.

    But HDR found only 59 vacancies at local parks for families, and reported it might be necessary to relocate families up to 50 miles away.

    Another option would be to give families "supplemental housing payments" to help them find new housing nearby their current homes, HDR suggested.

    Don Hazelton, a district director for the Federation of Manufactured Homeowners of Florida, met Thursday with city administrators to discuss the issue. Hazelton said he was impressed with the city's attitude about residents, although the city's plans seemed uncertain.

    "They seem extremely sensitive and very concerned," Hazelton said. "I think this is the first time in the history of the state that I've seen this much concern. They ought to be applauded for that."

    John A. Sebold, an 84-year-old Friendly Village resident, said that he won't worry until the city announces it has acquired the park because the situation is out of his control anyway.

    But Sebold said he hopes the city keeps residents well-informed of its plans.

    "The problem today is that many younger families live here, and some of them purchased their places recently," he said. "If they knew this was going to happen, I assume they wouldn't have bought."

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