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Violation may displace home

A couple installed the mobile home in 1973. Now, after 27 years, one anonymous telephone call complaining about it to the county may force it out.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


LUTZ -- Nobody in county government specifically remembers the anonymous phone call, but a piece of paper confirms it. Dated 2/15/00, the complaint form says "trailer not allowed."

Since then, the citizens of Hillsborough County have not uttered another peep of complaint about the aging mobile home near a dead end in Lutz.

But the February call was enough to shift the engine of government into drive and provoke a finding that the mobile home violates the neighborhood's zoning.

The home apparently has been illegal since the day it arrived, brand-spanking new, 27 years ago, and when the buyers, Ellery and Carol Rintala, began raising three children there and when they began planning their retirement to Minnesota. And it was still illegal early this year, when Gary Stephens began investing months of elbow grease and money to fix the place up for his 21-year-old daughter and her twin baby girls.

The county said the mobile home must be moved. The Rintalas have appealed.

Stephens was working there when he found the notice, a door-hanging that had dropped to the ground. "I go, "Aww, give me a break,' " he recalled.

Then he resumed fixing up the mobile home.

"I proceeded because I thought there's no way," said Stephens, 57, who lives a block away. "That thing's been there 27 years. Why're they going to run me out of here?"

But the decision had been straightforward.

County staffers looked up the property's zoning. It was "residential single-family conventional 6," meaning up to six homes per acre. "Conventional" means no mobile homes.

"They went out there and said, "Yeah, there's a mobile home there,' " said Jim Blinck, a field supervisor of code enforcement for the county.

Life in chaos

Today, most mobile homes in Lutz are relics of a rural era, before subdivisions replaced pastures and houses lined the lakefronts. Agricultural zoning was prevalent back then, and it allowed mobile homes.

The Stephens' neighborhood, one of the oldest in Lutz, was rezoned for houses in 1966. People living in mobile homes could stay there, but new mobile homes couldn't be put in, county officials say.

In 1973, the Rintalas purchased a lot containing a burned out mobile home. They bought a new mobile home to replace the burned one. Permits were issued and the electricity was turned on.

"We always assumed we were grandfathered in," Ellery Rintala said.

Three years later, the family moved to Minnesota, where Rintala began a career in the mining industry. They have rented out the mobile home ever since.

Around the corner, rows of houses were built over the years. But the mobile home itself is surrounded by overgrown lots. Just to the south is a Lutz Elementary School playground.

Rintala, 59, argued the couple's appeal last week before Margaret Tusing, a county land-use hearing officer. She is to rule soon whether the county is incorrect.

"We had no idea anything was wrong," Rintala told Tusing.

It was the couple's second trip to Tampa over the issue. Resting after the hearing, Rintala shook his head and said, "A random phone call about a mobile home has put our life in complete chaos."

At the same time, Shannon Stone has enjoyed living there.

Last year, when she was pregnant with twins, Ms. Stone couldn't work. She and her husband couldn't pay their mortgage and lost their house shortly after Gloria and Maria were born in November. The young family crowded in with her parents, the Stephenses, and Ms. Stone's 14-year-old sister, Katie.

The crowding eased after Gary Stephens, in a deal with the Rintalas, renovated the mobile home. He replaced floors and carpets, plumbing and wiring. He repainted walls and ceilings. He estimated he spent $1,500 to $2,000.

'How come?'

If the trailer must be moved, Stephens would pay far more. He plans to buy it from the Rintalas and buy a lot for it. The county's Blinck estimated that recent tie-down regulations alone could add $3,000 to the cost of a move.

"The only thing I want," Stephens said, "is my daughter and those babies to be there and us to be close to them."

Ms. Stone and her husband have separated. She is being supported by her parents and hopes to enroll in Hillsborough Community College.

"I'd like to be close to home, just in case of anything," she said. "I am by myself, so it's a lot harder. ... I feel very safe here."

County officials are sympathetic, but feel boxed in by the rules.

Blinck said the Rintalas responded quickly to each notice from the code enforcers. "That's pretty unique in our business."

He said he wished he didn't have to pursue the enforcement.

"Unfortunately, I don't have the authority to do that," Blinck said.

Somebody complained and a violation was confirmed. "Six months from now, somebody could call up and say, "Here's an ordinance. You're not enforcing it. How come?' "

But Blinck voiced hope that the hearing officer will overrule the county staff in the Rintala's appeal.

"They're a nice couple," he said. "I hope they're successful."

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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