A workshop last week to address the growing presence of travel trailers, RVs and mobile homes – amidst neighborhoods where homes are growing in price and shrinking in availability – brought into sharp focus one of the thorniest issues county commissioners now have to face.
How do you preserve safe neighborhoods, where people adhere to zoning regulations, while not rendering homeless folks who work here and who have long made Franklin County their home?
The county commissioners’ workshop May 16 didn’t resolve the matter but did shape a clearer view of where matters of affordable, available housing intersect with concerns about preserving neighborhood zoning standards.
The afternoon workshop, attended by four of the five commissioners with Noah Lockley absent, had been called to address a draft ordinance intended to update a four-decade-old ordinance that primarily focuses on travel trailers, RVs and other residences usually occupied on a temporary basis.
Not surprisingly, the workshop opened with one of the most vexing questions facing Franklin County, that of affordable housing for working people.
“We have a severe shortage of housing in Franklin County,” said Nena Segree. “People aren’t willing to live in cramped quarters for the rest of their life if they have options.”
Eastpoint pastor Cheryl Fritsch-Middleton then spoke out as she sought to make clear that the issue of these residences extends to working people, and not limited to those places lived in by “people suffering from addictions who aren’t trying hard enough.
“If you go talk to employers around here, it’s their people living in those places,” she said. “First and foremost these are people’s homes, they have worked hard to get them. It’s all they can afford; that’s somebody’s home. Either way this is an issue of humanity, and there’s an economic side as well.”
She said a survey of housing prices indicates “a whole lot can’t afford anything around here,” noting that the least expensive home in Eastpoint sells for about $250,000, which means a family would have to make $100,000 to $125,000 annually to afford the mortgage payments.
“There’s a whole gap in there,” Fritsch-Middleton said. “We have jobs unfilled, they’re all over the place. I know a lot of these people and they’re doing the best they can.
“When you start taking away the homes of the employees who are already here what do you think is going to happen?” she said. “Whether we like it or not, we’re relying on tourism here. This will impact tourism. When there is no one to cook the meals, when there’s no one to wait on the tables, when there’s no one in their stores to wait on people and when there’s no one to clean the houses, they’re going to take their tourism dollars some place else. And whether or not these are an eyesore for everybody, it’s going to be a moot point, because our economy is going to have suffered tremendously from that.
“We cannot be in a position where we’re taking people out of their homes unless we have some place for them to go,” she said. “And we don’t have that right now.”
Fritsch-Middleton’s point was soon echoed by Eastpoint restaurateur Kim Council, who spoke about the devastating impact that cutting down on affordable living options would have.
“If we don’t allow people to live in campers or mobile homes, I lose half my staff,” she said. “Every Monday night we feed 180 people in Eastpoint who are food insecure. Half of them are going to be homeless. It’s going to create a problem for businesses.”
“I can’t reach out to culinary schools (for help) because there’s nowhere for them to live,” Council said. “If putting a camper on a property, if that helps them get a start, that’s good for all of us.”
Sharon Rider, who said she has lived in a mobile home on her private lot for 18 years, said she has been there since Hurricane Dennis took her house.
“Social Security doesn’t go very far and neither does a pension check,” she said. “It (the mobile home) is mine and I love it there. We take good care of our property, we have everything we need and we try to be a good neighbor.”
Eastpoint businesswoman Abbie Shiver said she believes it’s time for the county commission to address a problem that has been festering for a long time.
“I understand that angst of yards being dirty and things not being taken care of,” she said. “(But) we have school teachers, educated professionals in our community, living in campers because they can’t afford to live here. We already have an issue with our education system and if we kick out all the campers and RVs and things, then we have an issue with having people educate our children. What are we going to do then?
“This is not a new issue; this is an issue that’s been kicked down the road for the past 20 plus years. We’ve got to solve this issue,” Shiver said. “We have professionals, a lot of people in our community, that is their home. I don’t want to see people homeless.”
She said that she and her husband both came from modest means and were able to work their way up with the help of options provided them by people in the county. “Those options don’t exist for young people in our community,” Shiver said. “Those young people coming up, they are our future. The can has got to stop being kicked down the road.”
Shiver acknowledged that some people, especially newcomers, are taking advantage of loopholes and putting in RVs in places, such as St. George Island, where it is clearly inappropriate.
“Those are the people who need to be chastised and taken care of,” she said. “People moving here shouldn’t have a flagrant disregard for the laws that are on the books.”
Next to speak were several people who looked at the matter primarily as one where people are taking advantage of lax code enforcement and in some cases flagrantly violating zoning ordinances.
“A neighbor decided to make a living renting a lot next to me for RVs,” said Mike Pierce. “There’s a person on 98 near Carrabelle doing the same thing. It upsets me that people can do that with a standard county ordinance.”
Wayne Gleasman, who said that as a property manager he represents 20 boards of directors of homeowners association, said he has seen “people who have flouted your ordinances and codes, in full violation of all ordinances and covenants.”
He said the problem is getting worse, and that he and the people he re[resents support the draft ordinance as it has been originally presented.
That ordinance, as outlined by County Attorney Michael Shuler, would modify the existing one- to two-week limit on how long people can live in travel trailers by instituting a required free permit that would make clear when to start counting the allowed days.
“It starts a very clear time clock quickly,” he said, as well as disallowing any owners from renting out trailers on property not zoned commercial.
Carrabelle real estate agent Wanda Rose stressed in her remarks that “I’m not here against the people that need a place to live. I’m here because we have a zoning problem.
“Right now I have five RVs in my neighborhood,” she said. “I understand the position about people not having a place to live and can’t afford it. But on the coast we’re not supposed to have mobile homes.”
She said she has seen places along the coastline on 98 where there are two RVs sitting between two houses.
“They are not people who don’t have money,” Rose said. “We need to do something for people who can’t afford it. Working people can’t afford to buy these homes. We have to do something for people for a place to live, but don’t mix it in the neighborhood. That’s hodgepodge.”
Sheriff, health department weigh in
Sheriff A.J. Smith said his primary concern is criminal activity, and not code enforcement and zoning violations, which he is powerless to enforce.
“If it’s a law I can enforce. I’m happy to enforce it but it’s not,” he said, “Affordable housing is really crazy and you all have tough decisions to make.
“It’s the campers that have no running water. or they have drug activity, those are a problem for me,” Smith said. “Those types of environments draw all kinds of crime and criminal elements there. We have people living in sheds on property, where there’s no water and no sewer. You have one of them in a neighborhood and it makes it a bad neighborhood. I’m telling you what the deputies see.”
He said a tougher ordinance restricting the presence of unauthorized trailers and RVs would likely help lessen drug activity. “That’s my biggest concern,” Smith said. “It’s increasing now more and more and more, and will until we see an ordinance that gives law enforcement the ability to do something.”
Sarah Quaranta, health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Franklin and Gulf counties said that the department’s focus is primarily on sanitary nuisances, and cannot enforce code violations that are outside their scope of responsibility.
“We’re looking for specific things that can be a health hazard to you or your neighbor,” she said, noting that addressing rodent problems attracted by garbage or untreated sewage, or removing things that can hold standing water form a typical agenda for inspectors. She said sometimes people use code words when they lodge a complaint, even though the situation does not warrant health department involvement.
Commissioners Jessica Ward, Cheryl Sanders and Ricky Jones all defended the work of the health department and each stressed that they want to find a way to address a thorny situation.
“We’ve got to find a way moving forward. We don’t want to make people homeless but we need to make it (the ordinance) where it’s effective,” said Ward.
“We have to find a way to be effective and show compassion,” said County Coordinator Michael Morón. “It’s hard to get there.”
Jones said that the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District, on whose board he serves, is planning a workshop to address using 38 out of 45 acres it owns for workforce housing.
“We’re trying to strike a balance here,” he said. “I’m tired of circling the same tree and I’m tired of the ‘Wild West’ mentality. It’s not going to change unless we make it change. We’re trying to do it with the least unintended consequences we can.”
Sanders echoed Jones’ concern. “)People) are coming here and spending a lot of money on property. And we have our local folks who can’t afford stuff. You have to balance stuff.
“The last thing you want to do is drive our local folks out of the county more than they already are,” she said.