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Renters last hope: no annexation

Renters and property owners in a mobile home park have split over a purchase offer by Wal-Mart, which wants to expand its nearby store to a supercenter.

The 45 senior owners of Colony Mobile Home Park stand to quadruple their initial investment if the $8.2-million deal goes through. After mortgages and other debts are paid, each owner is expected to receive about $114,000 gross.

"They were very wise to go ahead and buy the park," said Largo attorney Jonathon Damonte, who represents the park owners. "They're going to benefit from the wisdom of their decision."

For the roughly 80 elderly residents on limited incomes who rent space in the park for their attached homes, the deal could mean financial ruin.

Residents say they've been promised an estimated $1,350 to $2,750 as compensation _ far less than it will cost to move their homes, elevate them to current standards and codes, and to replace carports and Florida rooms that were added on and cannot be moved. Residents said the payoff also does not take into account expenses such as electric and plumbing hookups.

And that assumes they can find a park that will take their aging homes.

"All this stuff, it adds up to big money," said Sylvia Murphy, 68. "There's no place that will take our mobiles at the age they are . . . . They're leaving us between a rock and a hard place."

Murphy and the other renters have picketed Wal-Mart and they've lobbied government officials. They've spoken at public hearings. On Tuesday, they plan to take their battle to the County Commission.

In doing so, they've landed in the middle of the annexation battle that has spawned lawsuits pitting mid-Pinellas cities against the county.

Colony Mobile Home Park at 7901 40th Ave. N lies at the southwestern tip of the Lealman Fire District in unincorporated Pinellas. The adjacent Wal-Mart, 3993 Tyrone Blvd., lies within the city limits of St. Petersburg.

Construction of a supercenter on the combined property would be easier if all the land were in one jurisdiction. Wal-Mart would have to deal with one set of rules, one group of officials.

Wal-Mart wants Colony annexed into St. Petersburg before the purchase goes through. The city has zoned Wal-Mart commercial and, presumably, might be more willing than the county to change Colony's zoning from residential to commercial.

To make Wal-Mart happy, the county would have to change the area's annexation planning boundary line because Colony is in a no-annexation zone.

Colony's renters want to make sure the boundary stays put.

"If the annexation doesn't go through, the deal won't go through," said Ron Rosen, 68, vice president of the renters group. "The annexation is critical."

It is unclear that Wal-Mart would back away if the annexation fails. Theoretically, the supercenter still could be built. Wal-Mart did not return a phone call asking for comment.

So far, the renters are losing. They failed to convince the Pinellas Planning Council, which is dominated by city officials, that the boundary line should not be moved. That group has recommended the County Commission move the line to make way for the annexation.

County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the issue at Tuesday's 9:30 a.m. meeting, 315 Court St., Clearwater. The meeting is open to the public.

"This is a straight test of the county's commitment to the people of the unincorporated area," antiannexation activist Ray Neri said. "If the cities can bully their way into creating the annexation to happen through the PPC, there are no boundary lines that the people in the unincorporated area are going to be saved by."

The county's willingness to protect residents in unincorporated Lealman from repeated annexation precipitated legal retaliation. The commission voted in 2002 to move the boundaries established in 2000 to further protect the unincorporated Lealman area by shrinking Pinellas Park's annexation zone.

Pinellas Park, Seminole and Largo have sued the county. That case is scheduled for a hearing later this month.

Colony renters just hope commissioners will protect their homes.

"It's a shame to get rid of affordable housing for the older people," Murphy said.

Colony opened its 13 acres in 1966 and some of the older residents have lived there since that time. Residents range in age from 54 to 94.

With neatly established homes, tidy lawns, clubhouse, pool, shuffleboard courts and American flags billowing from many of the mobiles, it is far from the stereotypical "trailer park."

Losing that so it can become a parking lot for the "Wal-Mart empire" hurts especially badly, Rosen said.

Damonte, the owners' attorney, said the renters all had the chance to buy a share two years ago when the all-renter park changed hands.

The goal of those who bought in was to have control of the park and its future. They also knew that was a prime place for redevelopment, he said.

Those who refused to buy shares are now suffering from their own decisions, he said.

"They practically begged them to buy in," Damonte said. "They chose not to."

But it is not just the loss of homes that is the problem, Rosen said, citing the possibility of more traffic on already crowded streets, and the resulting noise and lights.

Those are major reasons for concern, said Gene Benware, head of the board of directors at the Villas, a condominium-style complex for seniors that is next-door to Colony.

"We're directly affected. Mainly because of the traffic and so on," Benware said. "If they're going to border on us, we need to understand what they're going to do with noise, lights. There's a whole bunch of issues there."

Benware tried to air his concerns during the PPC meeting, but he was not allowed to speak.

"We're not about to let it go," Benware said. "We want some definite answers before a building starts down there."

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