Tent City proposed for Hillsborough still has life but may have to relocate
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08/11/09 Seán Kinane
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A proposed tent city in Hillsborough County is still being considered, but supporters may need to examine alternative locations. In a Land Use meeting today, County Commissioners voted to send the proposal back to a public hearing.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Petersburg is asking Hillsborough County to change the zoning of 12 acres near Harney Road and Hillsborough Ave. in east Tampa to allow 250 tents for homeless residents. Three weeks ago the Commission asked staff to determine how they could revise the Minimum Housing Code and the Building Code to allow temporary structures like tents and wooden shacks.

But on Tuesday, the Commissioners chose to send the proposal back to a public hearing because, according to Assistant County Attorney Adam Gormly, the people who had commented at the previous hearing should be able to remark on the new changes.

“For that reason, we’re recommending that this petition be remanded back to the August 25th Hearing Master hearing to conduct a public hearing on the changes to the project and the new proposed conditions both to allow public testimony on it and to allow the Hearing Master to consider these proposed changes as part of his consideration of the project.”

Before the changes were made, the Hearing Master had recommended that the Commission reject the tent city proposal from Catholic Charities. The same two Commissioners - Ken Hagen and Kevin White - who voted to stop the project last month voted against holding another public hearing because they say the location is wrong. White, whose district includes the proposed site, suggested an alternate site at a nearby school owned by the Diocese of St. Petersburg: Mary Help of Christians Center.

“That seems like that would be a much more appropriate site. It’s at the dead end of a road. It’s industrial. They have facilities already. It’s not abutting any residential neighborhoods. It’s a short jaunt to [HART] and bus routes.”

But Frank Murphy, president of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, says that even though it’s no longer a full time school, Mary Help of Christians is still used for many religious classes and other gatherings for kids.

“It still is an active parish site, with children, CCD [“Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,” Catholic religious education] program, retreats for children, and actively used as a Catholic ministry. We did look at that, consider that. It’s not nearly as accessible or really close to the population of the homeless.”

Commissioner Jim Norman says that Hillsborough County could also donate land for a tent city -- what he calls “Catholic Charities 2.” His colleague Rose Ferlita made the motion to hold another public hearing with the Hearing Master.

“I already have met with staff and administration and we are looking at other sites. But I was hoping that would be an opportunity to weigh in on later. But there are some possibilities. Again, that’s what I was looking at when I said ‘compromise.’”

After the Commissioners voted 5-2 to hold a public hearing, a vocal critic of allowing a tent city at the proposed site, Hal Hart, said a positive step was taken on Tuesday.

“I think the County Commissioners are finally starting to listen. I think the fact that they’re talking about other possible locations means that they’re paying attention. That they want to make sure that this does not negatively impact our community. So, yes, I think that this is a very positive sign.”

Hart maintains that there are “some real legal questions here about this process.” But he is optimistic the Commission will consider alternate locations.

“We want to explain why this is not a viable solution, number 1. Why this is not a good location. I think the Commissioners need to understand that the Diocese owns literally hundreds of vacant agriculturally-zoned property in Hillsborough County and that there are perhaps other more suitable locations, and so we want to explain that to them.”

Catholic Charities president Frank Murphy says he is open to other locations, including agricultural land. “If they are close to the homeless, on bus lines, close to services, I’m happy to consider any site.”

But in the meantime, the revised plan for the originally proposed site of the tent city is still on the table. Murphy says he is “not discouraged” because Catholic Charities worked with county staff to come up with changes to their plan that might make it easier for the zoning request to be accepted by the county.

“They came up with a number of suggestions we never would have thought of. We put those in our plan. I think they help a lot. We changed the egress point on Hillsborough Avenue so it’s even farther away from the neighborhood where people go in and out. They’ve asked for a little more buffer on the commercial side, which is reasonable, and where the location of the tents or casitas might be, number of bathrooms. There’s some fear about the water table … all the sewer changes that are required. Some of the drainage issues that are already existing on the property could be addressed. So we felt good about the staff changes and we proposed those as conditions and we’ll go to the Zoning Hearing Master.”

Linda Hinson says her house is a three minute walk from the proposed tent city location near Harney Road. She holds a red octagonal sign reading “Stop Tent City.” Hinson points at drawings of a tent and a hypodermic needle and says, “They just need to move it to another site.”

On Aug. 25, the Zoning Hearing Master will hear the Catholic Charities’ proposal again with the new modifications and the public will be able to comment. The County Commission will consider the request at the Oct. 13 Land Use meeting.

revised land use application from Catholic Charities for tent city

previous WMNF coverage

Mary Help of Christians Center

Stop Tent City

Catholic Charities – Diocese of St. Petersburg

Diocese of St. Petersburg

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Comments

Tent City

There will be unhappy people no matter where you put a 'Tent City'. The most recent proposal on Chelsea Avenue is one of the best, inasmuch as it has the least impact on others. If I had land, I'd say set it up on that, but then someone would complain. It's gotta be done. These people need a safe, weatherproof place to sleep. Most of us are within a paycheck or two of being homeless in the best of times, perhaps even more so now, considering the state of the economy. A great idea, if possible, would be a non-religious tent city, but that is even more unlikely than the Catholic Charities option.

Tent City

There will be unhappy people no matter where you put a 'Tent City'. The most recent proposal on Chelsea Avenue is one of the best, inasmuch as it has the least impact on others. If I had land, I'd say set it up on that, but then someone would complain. It's gotta be done. These people need a safe, weatherproof place to sleep. Most of us are within a paycheck or two of being homeless in the best of times, perhaps even more so now, considering the state of the economy. A great idea, if possible, would be a non-religious tent city, but that is even more unlikely than the Catholic Charities option.