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City takes inventory of mobile home parks

The next time a developer wants to turn a mobile home park into a shopping center, city officials want to be ready.

They won't be able to stop the change or prevent the emotional toll that goes with a sudden, forced relocation. But the hope is they will have a better handle on how to address it.

That is the thinking behind a new report on 40 mobile home parks that lie within or are surrounded by the city limits. The parks are home to an estimated 10,000 people, or about one-tenth of Clearwater's population.

The report says mobile home parks are an important source of affordable housing in Clearwater and that they provide a "sense of community" for residents. But it also notes a trend toward "converting" parks into commercial uses as vacant land becomes more scarce.

Mobile home parks, especially older ones that are getting hard to maintain, are prime targets for developers because the land typically is worth more if used for something else.

Older parks along major streets that are controlled by a single owner are especially vulnerable.

At least 14 parks in the city's inventory fit that description.

Only five parks are owned or controlled by residents, who have an obvious advantage: They control their own destiny.

According to the inventory, two of the 40 parks were developed in the 1940s and most in the '50s and '60s. One was developed in the 1970s and the newest one, Island in the Sun at Hampton Road and Drew Street, was developed in 1993.

The report concludes that it is doubtful any new mobile home parks will be developed in Clearwater.

Many mobile home residents in Clearwater are vaguely mindful of threats from development, said Charity Cicardo, director of the Largo-based Federation of Mobile Home Owners of Florida.

"In the back of their minds they know that could happen," she said. "They see all the commercial development around them. It's like they don't ever want to believe it, though."

The city's report establishes some policies for dealing with proposed redevelopment of mobile home parks.

Under the policies, the city would keep the current zoning for mobile homes, maintain the state-mandated practice of making sure residents have a place to relocate and ensure that the new use for the property is compatible with surroundings.

City officials would do all those things with or without the report. But they are hoping the report, with its inventory of parks, will help them plan better.

Cicardo said it will be helpful when new officials come along in later years who aren't familiar with mobile home issues in Clearwater.

When a park owner decides to convert the property to something else, city officials "will know right then and there what they're dealing with," she said. "To me, any kind of information can only be helpful."

Cicardo said she hopes the report will prevent what happened in 1994 at the former Ridge Haven Mobile Home Park, where more than 60 homeowners were evicted to make way for a Circuit City store.

Many of the residents were in their 70s and 80s, a handful were in their 90s. Some had been in their homes for 20 or 30 years. Although the developer paid moving costs, most took the move hard. Some landed in public housing.

"I think (city officials) saw the turmoil, the anguish that happened in Ridge Haven," Cicardo said.

Since then, the owners of two other Clearwater mobile home parks have taken steps to vacate residents and convert their properties to other uses.