TAMPA — Should a property zoned for commercial use be considered residential if people are living there?
That question appears to be at the heart of a legal dispute between the city and the new owner of a mobile home park at 3010 W. Gandy Boulevard.
Last month, the city assessed a $420,000 fine against the former owner of the property, part of a record-setting $840,000 fine related to the clear-cutting of trees on the parcel.
After 27 trees were cut and another irreparably damaged in August, the city fined the owner, Life O’Reilly MHP, LLC and the certified arborist who signed off on the mass tree removals. Each party was hit with $420,000 fines.
Soon after, the Gulfport-based limited liability company sold the property for $2.7 million to the Montage Engagement Land Trust,. A Naples attorney, James R. Nicci, is listed as the trustee.
In a complaint filed Oct. 14, the trust argues that people have lived on the property for more than 50 years and the city “cynically” ignored that fact when it levied the fine, according to the suit filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.
A state law that went into effect July 1 barred local governments from regulating tree removal from residential property, but the city argued that since the parcel was zoned commercial-general, the state law didn’t apply.
City Attorney Gina Grimes said at the time that the clear-cutting appeared to be done to make the property more viable for commercial redevelopment. The zoning was put in place in the 1980s during a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s land-use patterns.
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City officials declined comment Wednesday, citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation. When the city issued the fines in September, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said the city’s tree canopy would be vigorously defended and promised aggressive actions against any violations.
On Wednesday, tree advocates reacted to news of the suit with a statement saying the lawsuit was the latest attempt to harm the city’s tree canopy..
“Zoning rules exist for a reason: to protect the health, safety and welfare of communities. Codifying tree preservation and removals are no different. Why are trees all of a sudden considered an affront to property rights, and why is a poorly written state law being used to remove healthy trees while skirting the city’s code and zoning rules? Because sweeping removal of trees makes it easier to build anything bigger, cheaper, and faster, at the expense of residents and the environment,” wrote Chelsea Johnson and Joe Chillura.
In the 1960s, the city zoned the parcel to allow mobile homes and people have lived there ever since, according to the lawsuit. When a Times reporter visited the property in August, a few residents remained. Several said they had been given eviction notices earlier in the year and were technically squatting because they couldn’t afford to move.
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A hearing before a special magistrate on the fine had been scheduled for Oct. 30, but was continued because of the litigation.
The city plans to respond to the lawsuit in early November, said Ursula Richardson, a senior assistant city attorney. The case has been assigned to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emily A. Peacock.
The city has continued the other Gandy fine as well, pending future developments in the court case. Jonathan Lee, the arborist of Miller & Sons, didn’t return a phone call requesting comment.