PORT RICHEY — An attorney for a mobile home park on U.S. 19 says the city is responsible for the destruction of his client's park following a premature posting to residents of an impending demolition.
The city posted an order in May saying the Port Richey Mobile Home Park was slated for demolition, without giving proper notice of specific code violations, St. Petersburg attorney James Helinger said. He argued his client was not given the necessary information or time to correct any violations. Instead, word of the pending demolition set off an exodus of residents from the park at Grand Boulevard and U.S. 19, leading to rampant looting, Helinger said.
He said the park now looks like a "tornado hit it." As a result of the city's action, he said, his client, park owner Ron Asmar, has lost rental income amounting to $100,000 a year.
"They posted the notice and all hell broke loose, so now my client has nothing out there," Helinger told the Times.
City Manager Tom O'Neill said it's "preposterous" to blame the city for the looting that ensued. He said building inspectors were initially called to the park May 1 by Asmar's own property manager concerned about conditions there. The inspectors found the park already in deplorable condition, he said. After getting no response from Asmar, the city proceeded with the demolition order, O'Neill said.
O'Neill said it wasn't the city's posting that caused the destruction at the park, but a letter Asmar sent to each resident on June 19 ordering everyone to vacate the premises prior to an appeal hearing that Asmar had requested. Helinger said his client did so as the city's notice was already wreaking "catastrophic" consequences at the park.
The park is now uninhabited and littered with the rotting shells of numerous destroyed mobile homes. Garbage is piled up around the property, and there have been at least two fires on the site that officials believe were purposely set by vandals trying to get at copper.
Port Richey firefighters responded on July 26 to a fire inside the shell of one of the mobile homes, and then on Aug. 7 a small 600-foot-square foot cottage went up in flames. The state Fire Marshal has posted a $5,000 reward for information on the cottage fire, according to Port Richey Fire Chief Tim Fussell.
Fussell said he hopes the owner gets a fence up around the property to combat the looting and possibility of more fires, which had been the plan established at a July 26 City Council appeal hearing on the demolition notice.
At that meeting, the council postponed the appeal hearing for 30 days to allow a legal review of the demolition notice given to Asmar. In the meantime, Asmar's attorney at the time, Steven Moore, assured the council his client would put up a fence and begin cleanup efforts.
Since then, nothing has been done and conditions continue to get worse, said O'Neill, who sent an email to Asmar and his attorney questioning the lack of progress.
"The Council anticipated action to address the deteriorating site conditions from the property owner and I am extremely disappointed in the continued neglect of this property by the owner," O'Neill wrote.
In response, Helinger, who has taken the case over from Moore, wrote O'Neill a letter arguing the city's handling of the demolition notice led to the deteriorating conditions at the park. He argued the city should undertake securing the property at its expense.
"I understand that the city's immediate concern is to secure the property. My client does not object to the city fencing the property, pending final resolution of this controversy," Helinger wrote.
Helinger threatened a lawsuit against the city, but said he is open to an offer he received from O'Neill to meet in order to discuss a resolution. Helinger suggested in his letter the city buy the property for $2.5 million, a notion O'Neill scoffed at, telling the Times it's not in the best interest of the city to "get into the real estate business."
Port Richey City Attorney Joseph Poblick is still reviewing the matter, O'Neill told City Council on Wednesday night. O'Neill told the Times he is confident the city gave proper notice to Asmar of the demolition proceedings. An appeal hearing will be scheduled for Aug. 28.
If the council denies Asmar's appeal, the city could begin seeking bids for the demolition project. The city would pay for the demolition using Community Redevelopment Agency funds, and a lien would be put on Asmar's property until he reimbursed the city, according to the city's demolition ordinance.