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  1. Hernando

Hernando County commissioner: Are we rewarding property owners for not following the law?

Hernando County Government Center
Published May 20

BROOKSVILLE — A property owner violates zoning by improperly using his land. The county cites the landowner for a code violation. The property owner seeks a rezoning that accommodates his illegal use.

Rezoning requests often generate controversy in a neighborhood, but Hernando County commissioners last week discussed their discomfort over a recent trend that some see as rewarding property owners for not following land-use law.

Commissioners are not alone in their concern.

Lynn Gruber-White, president of the Ridge Manor Property Owners Association and a member of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, gave an impassioned speech on the topic at the May 14 County Commission meeting.

Her neighborhood faces such a rezoning request from a property owner — Arnoldo Naranjo Rivero — who wants to operate a machine shop and truck repair business that backs up to residentially-zoned lots.

His hearing was delayed until July while he cleans up code violations for vehicles and other materials on his lot that aren't allowed by his current zoning.

Previous coverage: Planning commission recommends approval of truck repair business in Ridge Manor

Gruber-White said the case is part of "an alarming trend" happening in the far eastern sections of the county, such as Ridge Manor, and in the far western sections of the county, such as Hernando Beach, which has seen similarly structured requests to expand commercial fishing.

"I'm talking about the (county) staff advising using rezoning as a method to resolve code violations for property owners who refuse to come into compliance,'' she said. She said she wasn't criticizing the county staff, but said staffing shortages might be playing a role in the problem.

Rezoning isn't an appropriate way to fix code violations, she said.

"Each time rezoning takes place, our comprehensive plan is modified and revised," she said. "Our comprehensive plan is the document designed to lead us into our future actions in our community ... the document that property buyers and owners rely on to protect and insulate their land values.

"I believe it is the burden of individual property owners to understand how their land is zoned and what uses are allowed in that zoning ... Where is the level playing field for all property owners?''

County Commissioner John Allocco echoed her concern.

"When a business is working outside of their zoning, they've created an unfair business advantage over everyone else who is trying to do business in the legal, and really the moral, way,'' Allocco said. "And that is something that this board and the community in general needs to pay attention to.''

Allocco said he struggled with granting permission for such land use changes.

Commissioner Steve Champion agreed, and said the county needs to beef up its code enforcement even in the midst of its budget shortfall.

The code enforcement process can be slow, county officials said, but they haven't intentionally not enforced the codes.

"We always tell people you have to correct your violation,'' said Ron Pianta, the county's development services director, adding that the county also must tell landowners their options, which may include a rezoning.

"It's a difficult situation for us to be in," Pianta said, "because you have to balance the rights and the needs of the property owner with the rights and needs of the neighbors.''

He called the Ridge Manor rezoning a "bad situation.''

"Everything has to be removed from the property'' before it can go forward with the rezoning, he said. "We clearly convey that message, and I don't want the message to be given to you ... that we're taking an easy route to try to correct a violation because we don't have enough staff."

Code violation information is included in the rezoning files, Pianta said, but "it should not be the basis for a denial.''

Still, when Hernando Beach Seafood sought a rezoning to expand its commercial operations, Gruber-White asked about code compliance during the Planning Commission hearing. Assistant county attorney Joseph DiNovo advised her not to raise the issue.

Previous coverage: Commission denies commercial fishing expansion in Hernando Beach

Later in that November 2018 meeting, planning commissioner W. Steven Hickey asked outright about the seafood operation in the new location.

"Is he operating outside the code right now?'' Hickey asked. "Or is he legal in what he's doing? I don't quite understand what we're approving or not approving.''

Pianta responded to him, saying, "there's a separate process to handle that, and that is where that needs to be handled.''

Kathryn Birren, whose family owns the seafood company, denied that they were using their property improperly.

Rezoning packets prepared for planning commission members and county commissioners do not include files on active code violations.

Another rezoning for a commercial fishing expansion is expected to come before the Planning and Zoning Commission in June. In that case, fisherman Tommy Evans went through the code violation process, and a hearing master last year found that he violated the code.

Previous coverage: Another commercial fishing expansion has been proposed in Hernando Beach

Evans, who is under fire from neighbors who say he still is conducting improper fishing operations on land he wants to rezone, had the special master ruling temporarily set aside so he could fight the case using a different part of Florida law.

Under that law, even if commissioners deny his rezoning, another level of mediation could take place and call for a reversal of their decision.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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