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  1. Pasco

Homeless shelter agrees to end operations that Pasco County deemed illegal

An east Pasco homeless shelter will shut down much of its operations until its structures comply with Pasco County's zoning and building rules, according to a lawsuit settlement.

The terms of the agreement, reached last week, end Pasco County's litigation against A Helping Rock Inc., a compound of tents, RVs and cabins on 20 acres off Forbes Road outside the city of Zephyrhills. The county sued in March, contending the nonprofit, transitional housing shelter operated without proper zoning and said its on-site RVs and cabins were unsafe and failed to meet minimum housing standards.

As part of the settlement, known as a stipulated consent judgment, A Helping Rock agreed to quit housing people in RVs and tents and said it would vacate the 10 cabins until it submits an application to the county for a what is known as a nonconforming use. Essentially, that is permission to make use of the cabins on land zoned for agricultural use. County authorization is required because the concrete block cabins were built around 1960, predating the county's zoning laws, established in 1975.

A Helping Rock also agreed to resolve all modifications to the property that were done without proper permits. That means it will have to seek the permits and pass inspections or dismantle unapproved work. Additionally, it agreed to allow county inspectors monthly access to the property for the next year and quarterly inspections for the three years after that to ensure compliance.

"I think the county recognizes the good work that my client does, and my client recognizes the importance of county codes and things of that nature,'' said attorney Luke Lirot, A Helping Rock's pro bono attorney.

County spokeswoman Tambrey Laine called it "a mutually beneficial resolution'' and said the county would assist A Helping Rock "in developing a plan to continue its important mission while meeting all applicable regulations ... and to continue working in unison to ensure the safety of the people it serves.''

The county's suit had sought to bar the shelter from accepting new tenants and require the on-site dwellings to remain vacant as tenants found housing elsewhere. The property has housed as many as 50 people, but in early April, there were fewer than 30 people staying on site, said Eddy Reyes, A Helping Rock's founder and director.

The legal action followed a November visit to the site by a team of county inspectors who reported electrical service that "presents imminent life-safety hazards.'' They said that plumbing, structural, electrical and mechanical work was done without proper permits and performed by tenants instead of licensed contractors, and said RVs were modified to be used as illegal permanent dwellings.

The lawsuit reverberated among other social agencies and public officials who expressed concern about the dearth of transitional housing for the homeless in east Pasco.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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