Divided commission OKs RV ordinance

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Gulf County commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday morning to approve a sweeping ordinance on recreational vehicles in residential neighborhoods that backers say will address the growth in the number of these units in the years following Hurricane Michael in 2018.

With Chairman Sandy Quinn, and Commissioners Philip McCroan and Patrick Farrell in favor, and Ward McDaniel and David Rich opposed, the county agreed to changes that would prohibit the putting in of RVs in the Coastal Construction Corridors, which would include Cape San Blas, Indian Pass and St. Joe Beach.

Those units now sitting on these lots would allowed to remain, provide they don’t violate rules pertaining to their being transported off the site in the event of mandatory evacuation orders.

In addition, these grandfather provisions would remain in place provided the property does not pass from the owner’s hands, either through their death or sale, under a series of conditions that are tighter than what was in place under a 2015 ordinance that was later rescinded.

The divided vote followed unanimous passage of a separate ordinance that would regulate commercial RV parks within the unincorporated areas of the county. Any such parks would have to have at least 10 acres for density, and would be required to maintain at least a 200-foot buffer on all its perimeters that abut residential structures.

Those RV parks that already exist would be exempted from these conditions, but would lose that grandfathered status if they cease operations for more than 30 days.

The ordinance regarding the RVs on residential properties was met with opposition from the outset, mainly from residents of Beacon Hill.

“I spent my adult life going all over the world defending freedom, fighting for freedom, Iraq, Afghanistan, all that,” said retired Air Force veteran Kevin Murphy, from Beacon Hill. “If the government felt like free was being repressed, big daddy was on the next plane going over there. That’s what I was sworn to do.

“In my opinion, we’re denying some residents in Gulf County freedom, the freedom to do what they would like with their own property and their own stuff,” he said. “We’re denying the people the freedom to do what they will or will not with their property and that’s wrong.”

But supporters of the ordinance were equally adamant that rules governing stick-built residential units are extensive, and that it is no trampling of personal freedom to apply rules to RVs as well.

“We are the only coastal county in Florida that does not have a robust RV ordinance,” said Pat Hardman, speaking on behalf of herself and neighbors. “The bottom line is tor protect the residential areas. The proliferation has occurred because we are the only county without an ordinance.”

She cited data provided her from Property Appraiser Mitch Burke’s office that compared lots with RVs to those with permanent homes. She said the difference in accrued tax revenue was about $55,000, $85,000 for homes compared to about $30,000 for RVs. Hardman said the total difference in revenue was about $5.5 million countywide.

“There is a huge cost to the county as well as individuals,” she said. “Stop the bleeding, slow it down, let’s get something on the books. Don’t let it be a catastrophic problem’ we don’t need a proliferation of more RVs.”

Port St. Joe attorney Pat Floyd, representing people who live in Indian Pass, encouraged commissioners to act.

“Thank you for running the race, bearing the burden and moving this toward the finish line,” he said. “By passing this you’re joining the many other coastal communities that have prohibited RVs as single-family dwelling units in dangerous areas.

“This is not against their RVs, this is to put them in a place,” Floyd said. “There are a lot of exceptions (in the new ordinance) and those are still taken care of. You can do a broader area but do it later. Let’s get something on the books now to (prevent property owners) from putting so many RV units in areas that are dangerous.”

But others, like Lynn Wilkinson from Beacon Hill, argued the restrictions would hit moderate-income residents the hardest and make affordable housing even more difficult to obtain. He said he had lived in an RV back in 2013 as he awaited construction of his stick-built home.

“The house behind me has a fulltime resident, she teaches at your school,” he said. “She didn’t have any short-term rentable options down here. She had been paying exorbitant rates at the RV parks. I rented her the property back there.

“I think that Beacon Hill is the last bastion where hardworking, blue-collar workers can come and have a residence, whether it’s an RV or the park model homes,” he said. “They can come down here and enjoy beach life.

“Are we going to end the last spot on the Panhandle where (they) can come down and set up a residence, where a low-income, low-wealth person can enjoy the beach?” he said. “This is the best community I’ve ever lived in and I don’t want it to change.”

Wilkinson said that in the event the law passes, he would like to see a grace period before it goes into effect. Right now the law went into effect upon its passage.

Several people came forward to argue pro and con on the measure, with some like Scott Taranto, who has property on the Cape, asking for a delay in implementation, since he is a little more than halfway into a $300,000 investment that would be used to house an RV in an area where they will now be prohibited.

“If I can’t finish it, I lose a lot of money,” he said. “I bought property believing I was able to do this. We need a chance to finish the projects we’ve started, I think that’s only fair. I’m asking that you take a look at language and see if there’s not some way we can finish up what we started.”

Another opponent of the ordinance argued that it was discriminatory in that it excluded from the ban the Highland View and Simmons Bayou areas.

 “Those people who live in RVs have put their life in a home,” she said. “You don’t even know how to enforce what you’re putting in place yet. We don’t even know how it’s going to affect the everyman. These people won’t even have a place to live. You’re taking away affordable housing from people.”

Another issue cited was the requirement that all RVs in the coastal area would have to be moved in the event of mandatory evacuation, and in the event they didn’t, could be subject to penalty, including losing any grandfather status they might have.

“We have a travel trailer under a carport locked up and strapped down. During Michael, it didn’t move,” said Greg Sertich. “Now you want me to pack up and head out somewhere when there’s an emergency declaration. Where are we going to go, up to Wewa?”

But others, like Fran Velonte, said she would like to see the provisions extend to 30A, and cited her family’s experience with Hurricane Andrew in Homestead decades ago, where emergency operations vehicles had to clear away dead bodies from the wreckage left behind in the storm.

“My family built three RV parks inland, tie-downs were required, and all three parks were completely destroyed,” she said. “It’s for your own good, for your own safety.”

Prior to the vote, Farrell said that during Michael, he remained in St. Joe Beach, and then used his tractor as part of the fire department’s effort to move RVs.

“I’m going to vote for this because I believe in it,” he said. “This is not an easy day but that’s the way I feel and I think that’s the way a majority of my constituents feel.”

McCroan said that while the ordinance was not perfect, he backed it, but would “like to see some tweaks down the road but we have to get something on the books.

“We know first-hand what a storm can do,” he said. “We know what water can do; we saw what it can do.”

Rich said that as a conservative Republican, he would be standing up for property rights. “I believe the free market is alive and well in Gulf County,” he said. “I’m willing to leave it as is.”

McDaniel, who represents Beacon Hill, said lot prices have been climbing, even for RVs, and that Oak Grove looks better today than it did 15 years ago. He said the small size of the lots, many just 30 feet, make it difficult to put up a house.

“We have so many people in this county, you can’t find a place to rent,” he said. “St. Joe Beach and Mexico Beach is different from the Cape and in Indian Pass. I’m going to stand up for the poor man. Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re bad.”

Quinn said his vote was based in large part on undoing some of the problems that ensued from the 2015 ordinance and its 2018 repeal.

“Eighty percent of the people in Gulf County want something on the books to help deal with this RV issue,” he said, noting that many of his telephone calls have come from out-of-state property owners concerned about their revenue stream.

“They ask ‘Can I continue to rent out my pad?’ That’s the only thing they’re concerned about? The only thing they’re concerned about is how many dollars they can get in their pocket,” Quinn said.

“Hopefully we can come back and adjust some things here and there,” he said. “I want them (RVers) to continue too come but we have to have something on the books to help the people in Gulf County.”

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