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TENT CITY A STEP CLOSER

A land use officer says the Catholic Charities plan should be approved.

The second time around, a Hillsborough County land use hearing officer gave his approval for Catholic Charities' proposed tent city project.

In a 13-page report released Wednesday, hearing officer James Scarola said the nonprofit had addressed his previous reasons for recommending that county commissioners deny the project near the intersection of E Hillsborough Avenue and Harney Road.

There, the nonprofit wants to create temporary, emergency housing for 250 people up to 90 days at a time on land owned by the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Scarola noted that changes made by the group and the county now make it compatible with county regulations.

By using the 12-acre site for church and family support services, he recommended that commissioners give the "homeless encampment" a four-year approval. After that, the group would have to reapply to continue running what it plans to call Hillsborough Cares.

Among other conditions for approval, Scarola said commissioners should require Catholic Charities to place fire-resistant tents on the site, add a code of behavior for the camp and provide transportation out of the neighborhood for those unfit to stay there.

After the first hearing in May, Scarola said he thought commissioners should vote against the proposed tent city unless they created an exception to the county's housing code. At the time, he said that there was "not currently a process in Hillsborough County that fits" such a project.

He also wrote that the proposed location did not match the surrounding residential and light industrial uses.

During the summer, 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. They sent the proposal back before Scarola for public input.

Business owners and residents who live near the site still oppose a tent city. County staff also recommend that the project be denied.

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. Commissioners are expected to vote next month.

Frank Murphy, president and spokesman of Catholic Charities, had yet to see the opinion Wednesday. He said that the group's lawyer was reviewing it.

"She called to tell me that it was positive," Murphy said. "We're excited. It's one step at a time with this project."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

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