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NO FAIR, TENT CITY FOES SAY

Catholic Charities is receiving special treatment from the county, opponents argue.

Frank Murphy walks through the grass, intent on sharing the vision for a tent city here.

Traffic whizzes by on Hillsborough Avenue near the intersection of Harney Road, where Catholic Charities wants to create Hillsborough Cares, a tent village for up to 250 people.

Murphy, president and spokesman for the nonprofit group, passes by the abandoned church on the site, which sits behind a truck sales business on Hillsborough Avenue. A fenced topped with barbed wire separates the properties. Down the way, there's a gas station at one corner, and about a half-mile up the road is the entrance to the East Lake Park subdivision.

"This is about where the 50-foot buffer will start," Murphy said, looking at the grass. "And we'll put a fence up to add one more layer between us and (the trucking business). We're only required to have a 25-foot setback, but the farther away our people are, the better for us all. And along the fence in this area we'll probably set up the major tents, where we'll have our residents gather and eat."

Without trees for shade, the spot along the fence isn't suitable for the tents and casitas, he said.

But site plans Catholic Charities submitted to the county show that tents and casitas are supposed to be along the fence. It's the organization's seemingly ever-changing plans, and an even more nebulous rezoning process, that irk land use lawyer Kami Corbett.

Hired by the site's neighboring trucking business, Corbett is the lone legal counsel who by default represents the project's opponents, a group that includes her client and nearby residents. She said it's been frustrating to deal with Catholic Charities' quest to use 12 acres as a homeless camp.

"They keep saying they've made all these changes, but it's only because the county is making them," Corbett said. "It's like having a street festival next to you permanently, and I don't think that once it's approved, there will be a whole lot the county can do about it."

Corbett has been frustrated by what she perceives as the county's special treatment of Catholic Charities. The process has left out those who are opposed, she said.

Earlier this summer, county commissioners directed their staff to rewrite the housing code to allow homeless camps and to work with the group to determine what's needed for approval. And if commissioners approve the tent village, changes will be made to other county codes so that the homeless camp, and potential projects like it in the future, are considered legal.

Corbett said this, as well as other opportunities given to the nonprofit, has made the rezoning unfair. For example, Catholic Charities filed an updated site plan the day before a hearing. East Lake Park residents who came to the meeting had no idea.

Normally, when there's a project with this much community interest, commissioners frown upon those kinds of last-minute changes, she said.

Ultimately, Corbett thinks, a tent city just isn't compatible with the mostly commercial and industrial business around the proposed site or with county regulations.

"It has to be consistent with the land development code and the comprehensive plan," Corbett said. "But it's not. If you can't count on the code ... then it calls into question the integrity of this whole process."

Murphy said that Catholic Charities hasn't been treated differently than other groups.

"We're not special," he said. "We're not skipping procedures, and we're trying to follow the time frames allotted. Whatever the county says we have to do, we'll do."

He and other advocates for the homeless contend that something has to be done about the gap of temporary, emergency shelters available for homeless people. Hillsborough County has the highest homeless population in the state, and a tent city would provide food, a safe place to sleep and access to services for up to 1,000 people a year, backers say.

Catholic Charities applied for its rezoning in August 2008 and originally planned to build affordable apartments on the site. But the plan fell through with the collapsing real estate market.

The group then pushed forward with plans to create a tent city like Pinellas Hope, which it operates in Pinellas Park.

After a series of meetings, commissioners put off making a decision in July. Last month, at a second hearing before a land use hearing officer, county planners said they still didn't approve of the plans for a tent city despite changes.

It was at this meeting that Catholic Charities presented a tweaked version of its project after working with the county staff to address problems.

Among other concessions, Catholic Charities agreed to keep constant security on the site and to submit to a zoning review in five years, if the project is approved. The nonprofit also agreed to block off an entrance on Hillsborough Avenue to steer camp traffic away from businesses and East Lake Park.

The group committed to provide services such as counseling, job searches and other social services referrals for the tent city's residents as well.

"It doesn't mean that you've solved the world's problems," Murphy said, "But we've made changes, and we're trying to respond to the concerns."

Both sides await land use hearing officer James Scarola's recommendation to commissioners this week. Before, Scarola said, he thought commissioners should vote against the proposed tent city unless they created an exception to housing standards. Commissioners are expected to vote on the project in October.

Despite all the issues surrounding Catholic Charities' proposal, Corbett thinks that the plan will be approved.

"It's just so frustrating that we're so far afield of the normal process," she said. "It's disappointing."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 661-2454.

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