Dade mobile home building moratorium extended, lawsuits could be on the horizon
By Risa Polansky
For the fifth time in less than two years, Miami-Dade commissioners have extended a freeze on issuing building permits for mobile home park properties in unincorporated areas.
And for the fifth time, they struggled to strike a balance between keeping residents in their homes and protecting owners' property rights.
Some park owners have protested the freeze from the start.
One is taking it a step further.
And the longer the moratorium lasts, the more exposed to lawsuits the county becomes, one commissioner fears.
Others say it would be worth the battle.
The owner of Colonial Acres Mobile Home Park, 9674 NW 10th Ave., began planning to redevelop the property ahead of the moratorium and even secured a land use amendment only five days before commissioners initiated the freeze in 2007.
The action came in response to cries from mobile home residents that owners are evicting tenants to make way for developments on the park sites.
The moratorium does not prevent park evictions or closures — just development.
The ban has kept plans at Colonial Acres from moving ahead, an attorney for the owner says.
"This owner has embarked upon a complete redevelopment of this property prior to the institution of this moratorium," Matthew Amster of law firm Bercow Radell & Fernandez told commissioners last week. "For over a year and a half we have been hindered by the extensions of this moratorium."
In response, the property owner has filed a vested rights claim with the county.
It says "that they have filed a zoning application on the property and that they wish to be processed," Assistant County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey explained to the commission. "They have not yet filed a court lawsuit."
Some commissioners fear that's next.
"I sympathize with the plight of the mobile home owners, but what we have here is a case of competing interests — the rights of the property owner, the rights of the people living in mobile homes," Carlos Gimenez said, adding later that "if we continue what we're doing with the moratorium, we're going to have some legal issues here."
Others said that, for the sake of maintaining affordable housing options in the county, it's worth the risk.
"It might be worth having a taking issue because we need to keep affordable housing units, so it may be worth that battle," Katy Sorenson said.
Barbara Jordan agreed.
That's what the county attorneys are for, she said.
Ms. Sorensen suggested also that the county "take a look at" the possibility of enacting eminent domain if necessary.
Mr. Amster, the attorney who represents Colonial Acres, said the redevelopment plans the owner is proposing include a workforce housing component.
"The owner proposes a residential development with townhouses and multi-family buildings and will provide at least 5% workforce housing units," he said.
He requested the development be exempt should commissioners choose to continue the moratorium for the fifth time.
"The continuation of the moratorium has abrogated the development rights of this owner," Mr. Amster said.
Still, commissioners voted to extend the freeze for five more months — without exempting Colonial Acres or other parks — as staffers continue to develop new zoning options for mobile home park properties.
In the year and a half-plus that the moratorium has been in place, the county has taken inventory of area mobile home parks, documented county efforts to provide housing program assistance and outreach to park owners and tinkered with alternative zoning options.
As they work to resolve the local issues, commissioners are also hoping for help from the state: laws allowing mobile home park residents the first right to buy their property.
As they have in the past, county zoning administrators last week recommended commissioners create a new "villa/mobile home" zoning district that would allow for mobile homes, manufactured homes and affordable housing units.
Limiting the zoning to only mobile home units could be risky, Planning and Zoning Director Marc LaFerrier said.
"The concern is that if we narrowed it down so far… that would create a possible takings."
Staff suggested also the county adopt "exit plan" standards locally codifying state requirements for development applications on mobile home park properties.
The proposed standards would require notice of any impending development and include a provision requiring park owners to demonstrate that residents vacated without "duress" or "coercion," or that all former residents found suitable alternative housing.
The recommendations for the zoning district and exit plan are "consistent with actions taken by other jurisdictions," as well as with legal advice from county attorneys, documents say.
Ms. Coffey, chief of the county attorney's Zoning, Land Use & Environment Section, cautioned commissioners that they could only extend the moratorium to continue exploring new zoning — not simply for the sake of halting building.
That would openly trample owners' rights, though even continuing the freeze to explore new zoning options could expose the county to legal challenges.
After hours of discussion — and pleas from park residents — Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz proposed the new five-month extension "to try to come back with a zoning as adequate as we need."