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    RV park denizens face an uprooting

    ''We're hurt and we're scared,'' one resident says about a sales contract to build on the Palm Harbor land.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


    "We're hurt and we're scared," one resident says about a sales contract to build on the Palm Harbor land.

    PALM HARBOR -- Hundreds of permanent and seasonal residents at Cypress Point RV Resort off U.S. 19 could be uprooted to make way for a new Target and a home improvement store.

    Park residents who hadn't headed north for the summer said this week they were blindsided by the news that the property is under a sales agreement, contingent on Pinellas County's approving an application to rezone the property.

    That puts the owners of more than 270 travel trailers and mobile homes at the RV park in a bind, said Bob Kozlowski, president of the Cypress Pointe Association.

    Residents have less than a week to decide whether to pay $900 to stay at the RV park for another six months and hope the sale does not go through or find another park. Moving isn't simply a matter of heading down the road to the next RV park, they say.

    Kozlowski said he got an estimate for $3,800 to move his unit. Some of the structures that are 15 to 20 years old would crumble if moved, he said.

    Then there's the matter of where to move to. Kozlowski said many parks won't accept older units. Besides, he said, residents of Cypress Pointe just want to stay where they are.

    "We're hurt and we're scared," Kozlowski said. "We all want to stay. The park is unique. The friendships we've made, you'd have to live here to understand."

    Don't let the name fool you, Kozlowski said as he weaved his golf cart through the park, which backs up to Lake Tarpon.

    Some might assume that an RV park is filled with travel trailers whose owners drive from park to park exploring the country.

    But Kozlowski's tour shows a mixed community with more permanent structures: mobile homes and travel trailers with permanently enclosed porches, decks and landscaping. Most residents have lived there seasonally for years, some for decades.

    Particularly galling to many of the residents is that the owner of the park, the Wilder Corp., never told them about the sale. Many residents feared the worst when the company recently offered a six-month lease rather than the usual one-year renewal. But the offer made no mention of the possible sale.

    Property owners to the north and south of the RV park were invited by representatives of the proposed buyer, Commercial Development Associates of Tampa, to attend a meeting last week at a local hotel to discuss the proposed development plan.

    Residents of Cypress Pointe got no such letters. Nor did they get notices about the rezoning plan.

    Timothy Johnson, an attorney for Commercial Development Associates, said the company was obligated to notify only the surrounding property owners. Renters in the RV park are not property owners.

    Besides, Johnson said, "the owner asked us not to notify them. I think the owners intend to deal with the residents themselves."

    So far, the Wilder Corp. has not.

    In a January letter to the Cypress Pointe RV Resort Homeowners Association, company president Maurice Wilder downplayed talk of an impending sale.

    "I have no idea where the rumor came from regarding the supposed selling of the resort," he wrote, adding that the company was merely interested in putting a convenience store in the park.

    Wilder and another company official did not return telephone calls for comment, but Johnson said he has learned that Wilder plans to meet with residents within the week.

    Residents say that's too late. Most of the tenants in Cypress Pointe are seasonal residents who have already headed north for the summer. Most of those who remain plan to depart soon, leaving little time to make other arrangements.

    Kozlowski believes the late notice was intentional.

    "They waited until 90 percent of the park was empty," he said, "so there would be no objection down at the courthouse for the zoning hearing."

    There are about 270 units "tied down" at the RV Park. Of those, about 60 are occupied by year-round residents.

    The first step in the rezoning application process is a hearing before the county's Board of Adjustment on May 7.

    Because it is an RV park, not a mobile home park, there are fewer protections for residents, said Paul Cassel, the county's director of developmental review services. For example, the county requires owners applying for a change of zoning at a mobile home park to provide information on whether, and where, residents can be relocated.

    The assumption by lawmakers is that RVs can simply drive away, or be hitched to a truck and move, Cassel said.

    That's not the case for many of the units in Cypress Pointe, Kozlowski said.

    "You can see these aren't travel trailers," he said. "They're homes."

    "These are darn permanent places when you look at them," said Jim Todd, a seasonal resident from Canada who rented at Cypress Pointe for more than 10 years.

    Some of the residents live in "park models" that are not made to be moved, Todd said.

    "With these park model homes, they've got no choice but to leave the blasted things here," Todd said.

    Like Todd, most of the seasonal residents are Canadians. Canadian citizens can't spend more than six months of the year out of Canada, he said, which means many of them must return home right away.

    "From a timing standpoint, it's the pits," Todd said.

    The lack of notification particularly angered residents who recently spent thousands on permanent additions like decks or porches that would have to be destroyed should they be forced to move.

    "I am so teed-off by the total lack of respect for us as tenants and human beings," resident Gerry Cload said.

    Johnson said he understands that the Wilder Corp. plans to offer tenants free rent for a period of time at one of its other RV parks. Kozlowski thinks the company ought to foot their moving expenses.

    There are 11 other Wilder RV Resorts in Florida -- including one in Clearwater and two in Port Richey -- as well as seven in the Rio Grand Valley in Texas.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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