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New scrutiny at reinstating 'similarity ordinance' for housing

A modular home on Frigate Bird Avenue neighbors a traditional home in the Royal Highlands area in northwest Hernando.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

A modular home on Frigate Bird Avenue neighbors a traditional home in the Royal Highlands area in northwest Hernando.

BROOKSVILLE — When Susan Brignola built her three-bedroom, three-bath home in the undeveloped reaches of Royal Highlands in 2005, she knew there would be some trade-offs.

The area in northwest Hernando County lacks paved roads, central water and sewer, but she figured she was protected in her investment by county rules requiring that everything built around her be aesthetically similar to her home.

Late last year, she was shocked when, just a few blocks away, someone began installing a prefabricated home with the look of a classic mobile home installed on piers.

Brignola questioned why the county's ordinance — which required a minimum square footage, a roof with a required pitch, a standard foundation and an attached garage, among other features — was not equally applied to the new house in the neighborhood.

She was surprised to learn that, since she built her house, the County Commission had repealed the so-called similarity ordinance, which ensured that homes in residential neighborhoods had a like appearance.

"We went through all the regulations imposed by the county,'' Brignola said. "Then by a whim . . . the regulations are gone.''

Concerned that property values would fall in a community of site-built and prebuilt homes, Brignola swung into action, contacting neighbors and collecting signatures on a petition. She and some of her neighbors are now asking the Commission to resurrect the similarity ordinance or write a new one that can accomplish the same goal.

The county has to fix what it has broken, she argues. Not acting is a violation of the commitment made to anyone who built a home in a residentially zoned area of the county between 2000, when the similarity ordinance was enacted, and 2010, when it was repealed.

"We purchased land here and built a permanent residence with the understanding that there would be stability in the neighborhood,'' Brignola said. "That has been taken away.''

• • •

Catherine Sangalang knows all about the similarity ordinance. To her, Brignola's arguments are deja vu.

Fourteen years ago, when she and her husband, James, bought a lot off Frigate Bird Avenue in Royal Highlands and installed a modular home on the site, neighbors began to drive by slowly to stare.

Then the TV news trucks showed up.

Neighbors in the sparsely populated area were aghast that anyone would invade their community of single-family, site-built homes with a mobile home.

"We couldn't afford a site-built home,'' Sangalang said. "It was a quick and an easy way in.''

Despite its appearance, the Sangalangs' home wasn't a mobile home. That would not have been allowed in the Royal Highlands residential zoning category. It was a manufactured home, which county officials said must be treated like a site-built home for permitting purposes.

Still, it didn't look like the other houses, and residents demanded that the county do something to protect their neighborhood and property values.

That sent Hernando County into a war with the modular home industry that lasted a year, and, for a time, the county banned modular homes from some neighborhoods.

In 2000, the commission approved the similarity ordinance as a compromise with the industry and to end the legal struggle.

The ordinance set two categories for reviewing a home. The first contained five criteria: construction type, foundation, roof pitch, living space and attached garage. If those were met, a permit could be issued immediately.

Homes that did not meet the criteria for Category 1 would fall to Category 2, in which a home must meet six of eight standards to gain a permit. The standards would compare the proposed house with the three closest to the site where it would be built.

For most of the decade that followed, county building department workers ensured that, as people sought their single-family home permits, their house plans met the criteria of the ordinance. Now and then, the staff would struggle with an unusual style, like a domed house or a log cabin.

As the decade wound to an end, the County Commission put to work a committee known as the Citizens Ordinance Advisory Team. The commission wanted the team to comb through the county's rules and weed out those no longer needed.

The committee looked at the similarity ordinance at the request of member John Mitten.

"Mr. Mitten stated that he brought this subject to the committee to help the building department save staff time and taxpayer dollars,'' according to the minutes of the COAT committee. "He stated that if the ordinance is not eliminated, it should be significantly revised to eliminate the need for staff to make site inspections.''

Committee member Bill Brannen "stated that he feels the ordinance has no place because it causes the building department to make deed restrictions where none exist,'' the minutes state.

The County Commission took the committee's recommendation to heart in 2010 and repealed the ordinance.

Then-Commissioner Jeff Stabins had urged repeal, saying that the ordinance was "an unnecessary bureaucracy" and "an additional burden on future homeowners."

"It's too much big government," Stabins said.

• • •

Mark and Dana Newcomer found their little patch of home in a heavily wooded area in northwest Royal Highlands last March. They spent months talking about how they would develop the land immediately as well as what their dreams were for the site.

Late last year, after months of preparation, the couple was ready to move into their Parrot Road house. Like the Sangalangs more than a decade earlier, the Newcomers started to see people drive by and stare at their modular home.

"We live in the middle of the woods. It's a residential forest, and we want to live in the woods,'' Newcomer said. "I don't get into other people's business, and I don't want them in mine. . . . Live and let live, and everything will be fine.''

Mrs. Newcomer said she is aggravated and frustrated by the attention and feels uncomfortable in her own home. She also said that the sparse look of her home site is because she and her husband have just moved in. Decks and landscaping are in the plans, but she said the couple's priority right now is simply to live within their means, free of debt.

County Commissioner Diane Rowden, who lives in a different section of Royal Highlands, drove by the Newcomers' home for the first time last week. She said the structure looked like a mobile home, strikingly similar to the home on Frigate Bird she had seen first in 1999.

"That is exactly why we had the similarity ordinance in place,'' Rowden said after her visit to the Newcomers' street. Rowden supported the similarity ordinance when it passed in 2000 and says she will support its return.

Now is not the time to take a step back in making the community a more appealing place to live, Rowden said, pointing at features in the northwest quadrant of the county, including the new schools north of Weeki Wachee, the Glen Lakes subdivision and the planned Lake Hideaway community.

By stepping back from the similarity ordinance, "the county is failing to protect the property value of the people in our community for the future,'' she said. "You can't just look at it for today. You have to think about the future.''

The County Commission is set to consider reinstating the ordinance, or something like it, when it meets on April 23.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

New scrutiny at reinstating 'similarity ordinance' for housing 04/06/13 [Last modified: Saturday, April 6, 2013 11:26am]
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